Pest Policy Questioned: Panelists say Quarantines Unfair to California Farmers

The Light Brown Apple Moth is an indigenous pest considered harmless to crops in New Zealand, Hawaii, Australia, and the UK, all countries that are free to export fruits and vegetables to U.S. markets while California farms currently face quarantines if it is found, a practice panelists at a recent forum called unfair to small sustainable farms.

“Why are American tax dollars being spent to quarantine American small farms while farmers in countries where the moth is present are allowed to bring their produce into California without the threat of a domestic quarantine?” asked Chris Mittelstaedt, CEO of The FruitGuys, a San Francisco-based produce distributor. He and three others spoke on a panel about the continuing moth controversy at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on June 14th, 2010.

Mittelstaedt told the story of a supplier in Aptos, Ca, Blue Moon Organics, where inspectors from the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) found unidentified caterpillars on part of the organic strawberry farm in the summer of 2009. They told the farmer the farm would be quarantined for 10 days to identify the caterpillars but it was four weeks before they got back to him with the news that the caterpillars were not LBAM. In the meantime, they found more caterpillars on the other side of his farm and once again quarantined it. This caterpillar also turned out not to be LBAM but the farmer lost another month of business. “He was in effect shut out of his prime harvest season and lost probably $40,000 in revenue,” Mittelstaedt said.

The Light Brown Apple Moth (LBAM) is a small leaf-rolling moth. It originated in the southern hemisphere but has likely been present in California for decades before first being identified in 2006. Farmers have not reported actual crop damage by the LBAM, which uses leaves as a protective wrap for its larvae and rarely penetrates the fruit. The Codling Moth, by contrast, burrows into apples and other fruit. Australia and New Zealand switched about 10 years ago from the use of pesticides, which were killing the LBAM’s natural predators, to a program of Integrated Pest Management which now keeps its population in check. Because it had never been officially identified in the U.S. before, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared the LBAM an “actionable” pest in 2007 and began an aggressive eradication program that included the aerial spraying of pesticides over populated areas of Monterey and Santa Cruz counties in California.

Roy Upton, an herbalist and alternative medicine lecturer active in the non-profit coalition, California Alliance to Stop the Spray, witnessed the aerial spraying first hand at his home in Santa Cruz, CA. “The next day my eyes were burning and my throat was scratchy, there was yellow-green slime everywhere and I saw dead cormorants at the beach,” Upton told of how neighbors witnessed hundreds of dead land birds; a housecat that was out the night of the spraying got sick and died; animals miscarried; fish ponds were poisoned; and local bird rescue groups collected more than 700 dead sea birds within a month.

Caroline Cox, a pesticide researcher and member of the EPA’s Pesticide Program Dialogue Committee, said that the fact that the USDA had declared a “state of emergency” over the LBAM allowed a waiver for EPA review of the pesticides used in the aerial spraying. After more than 700 complaints of side effects, the aerial spraying was suspended. The new plan is to eradicate the moth by 2015 with twist-ties that release pheromones to prevent successful reproduction. Cox said $75 million was being spent by the CDFA but little was known about the effects of pesticides proposed in the control program, especially the usually unnamed inert ingredients. “Think back to the use of DDT in the 1950s—no one knew,” said Cox. “We use pesticides for the benefits that they provide, but with the LBAM it is unclear what those benefits are.”

California Alliance to Stop the Spray, North Coast Rivers Alliance, Stop the Spray Marin, and a number of individuals filed a lawsuit in April against the CDFA charging that its recent Environmental Impact Report violated the state’s Environmental Quality Act. The panelists questioned the CDFA and USDA’s science and economic analysis of the moth’s potential impact and said the current pesticide-based eradication plan should be suspended while alternative methods of moth control were researched.

– Pia Hinckle

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