If you saw a tiny brown moth fluttering around a tree outside your house, you probably wouldn’t notice, never mind think to call someone about it. You certainly wouldn’t expect to become a person of interest to a statewide posse of entomologists, or for government agents to swoop down on your house and forbid you from taking fruit from any tree further than a mile and a half afield.
But that is exactly what happened to countless farmers and nursery owners in the Bay Area over the past few months, as entomologists, state agents, and activists followed the trail of the light brown apple moth (LBAM), an Australian invader. Since its first recorded sighting in Berkeley in 2006, the moth spread as far south as Los Angeles, prompting the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) to declare an emergency and begin aerial treatment using a pheromone intended to keep the moths from mating. “Aerial treatment” is a nice way of saying “spraying stuff out of airplanes,” and it’s that part that had organic-food-eating, chemically sensitive folks up in arms faster than you can say “Silent Spring.”
When the state sprayed Monterey and Santa Cruz counties last fall, more than 600 people filed health complaints, claiming the spray had caused rashes, asthma-like breathing problems, and chronic fatigue, among other symptoms. Anecdotal reports surfaced of pets dropping dead after exposure, and in the days following the spray hundreds of seabirds washed up dead on the shore. The human health complaints could not be conclusively linked to the treatment, but neither could they be denied; there was simply not enough information. As for the birds, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife issued a report finding no link between the spray and their deaths. However, the state did acknowledge that the original spray, as well as three similar products under consideration for an aerial bombardment, are believed toxic to aquatic species.
Thinking over the long term, environmentalists worried that the pheromone could disrupt the mating of species other than the light brown apple moth, and that the plastic shells used to deliver the pheromone might be picked up by bees in place of pollen. Says James Carey, an entomologist at UC Davis and opponent of the spray, “We don’t know what the impacts of the pheromone are on non-targets. Why in the world would you subject all these people to involuntary risk?”
Because no one had charted the long-term effects of the spray, no one could say for certain whose science was right, and the uncertainty propelled the battle for months. By the time the state backed down in mid-June—agreeing to release sterile male moths into infested urban areas to control breeding—thirty local governments and more than eighty citizens’ groups had gone on record opposing the spray. The state has not ruled out spraying in agricultural and outlying regions, though Steve Lyle, a CDFA spokesman, says that sterile insect release will be the primary approach in these areas as well, perhaps followed by ground treatment with pheromones and the release of stingless parasitic wasps. He says the sterile release program will not begin until sometime in 2009. Meanwhile, presumably the moth is thriving. As of press time it has done no significant damage.
So which was it—the eleventh plague or the biggest hoax since War of the Worlds? We may never know the answer, but in some ways it’s beside the point. In a global economy, exotic invasions like the moth are not the exception, they’re the norm. California’s agricultural industry is worth roughly $32 billion, about a third of which comes from produce exports. In the past few years, the state has gone after weevils and glassy-winged sharpshooters, invasive species that went right to work destroying crops. In a world where plants move freely, the pests that accompany them move as well, and once they arrive, they aren’t that easy to eliminate. So what do we do when the next pest comes?
MMD: Moths of Mass Destruction?
“Our goal is always to eradicate a pest before it causes any serious damage,” says Lyle. That goal is admirable but probably not feasible, says Steve Scholl-Buckwald of San Francisco’s Pesticide Action Network. “Truly eradicating something as widespread as LBAM is scientifically very challenging, probably impossible. And aerial spraying is very intrusive—people are so upset, you’re going to have health damage just from stress.” In this case, he says, the uncertainty, the public relations battle, and the probable return are just not worth it.
The real problem, says Scholl-Buckwald, is not so much the moth as the mechanisms in place to respond to it. The state received close to $75 million from the US Department of Agriculture to eradicate the moths—not, notes Scholl-Buckwald, to prevent them from arriving in the first place. “The USDA is demanding that they take action to try and eradicate, and will give them money to do something they can claim is a strategy. The wiser choice is to presume that you can’t eradicate, and that what you have to do is go into a long-term pest control program,” he says.
The reason there is no such program has to do with the government’s insistence that counterterrorism efforts trump most other domestic concerns. After 9/11, the Bush administration moved much of the USDA’s border monitoring work over to agencies within the Department of Homeland Security, in particular to Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Combating terrorism was the agency’s top priority, and the focus on agriculture diminished. According to a 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office, the move led to vast gaps in enforcement, resulting in fewer inspections of incoming produce shipments and increasing the country’s vulnerability to invasive pests and disease. At the Port of San Francisco, inspection rates for incoming cargo declined by nearly half between 2003 and the end of 2005.
“California’s monitoring program has forty vacancies right now,” says Scholl-Buckwald. “They’re getting their money from Homeland Security, but if you took homeland security seriously, you’d be doing a lot more monitoring and prevention. In an ecological pest management program, you keep watching to see what’s out there. If you let things get established, then you have a problem.”
Here Scholl-Buckwald finds an ally in the spray’s staunchest defender, Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura, a third-generation California farmer and businessman who took over the post in late 2003. Says Kawamura, “CBP runs the ports of entry inspection services, and their agricultural specialists should be doing these kinds of inspections.” He added that his agency learned of the forty vacancies only in April, long after the moth had been detected. “We’re putting pressure on them to fill those positions as quickly as they can,” he says. “It is a vulnerability for the state of California if they don’t make this a priority.”
Kawamura, who grew up working on his family’s farm and remains a farmer to this day, says he’s sympathetic to people’s concerns. “As a result of the pressures that we’ve been feeling since I got here, we’ve started to pull ourselves together and acknowledge that we’ve got a system that needs to be invested in and improved,” he says. The most recent farm bill, he notes, increases funding for preventive measures. “We’ve also put enough pressure on CBP that they’ve developed an action plan in response to all of us banging on the table. That’s a step, but it’s a plan that hasn’t been enacted yet, it’s only a plan on a piece of paper. Those forty positions, how come they’re not filled?”
Kevin Harriger, the CBP’s new head of agricultural oversight, was unavailable for comment for this article. Still, both supporters and opponents of the spray agreed that the system is inadequate. “It’s a federal government issue, in a way,” says Ring Cardé, chair of the entomology department at UC Riverside and a member of the USDA working group that advised the state on the eradication program. “These things are coming in, sometimes from other states, many times from overseas. My view is that we might well consider more stringent requirements for importing plant materials into the US.”
Nan Wishner, chair of the city of Albany’s Integrated Pest Management task force and an activist who opposed the spray, says what the country needs is not only improved border protection, but a more holistic approach to agriculture. “We have to shift our model from chemical interventions to supporting the natural ecosystem, so it will be robust against species that might have a damaging impact,” she says. “It’s a pretty rare case where you get the plague of locusts.”
While the federal government drags its feet, the state is using some of its federal funding to pursue longer-term control measures, including the sterile moth-breeding program that CDFA now hopes will achieve the same result as the pheromone. “Ideally, you’d have a global program going,” says Scholl-Buckwald. “You want to look beyond LBAM to the next pest, and the next pest after that.”