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Sharpshooter bug battle rages on

By Erika FrickeDaily Planet Staff
Monday February 19, 2001

The glassy-winged sharpshooter is a flying hopping pest slowly moving through California from the central valley. Scientists, agriculturists, and politicians are in a war to stop it. Meanwhile, environmental and health activists are gearing up to stop the scientists and agriculturists.  

On Saturday, a panel of advocates spoke at the Ecology Center on San Pablo Avenue, and presented their case against the methods used to kill the glassy-winged sharpshooter. They hope to organize Alameda County residents to prevent pesticide spraying before an infestation is declared here.  

The insect carries a bacteria from plants along rivers and streams. The bacteria causes Pierce’s disease which damages a plant by interfering with how it absorbs water. 

When it chomps on grapevines that produce California wine, the bacteria is introduced into the vines. The vineyards that succumb to the disease wither and the wine is not made.  

The state of California has declared a state of emergency, demanding that produce coming from infected areas be carefully inspected and infestations be controlled. Areas in Fresno, the Sacramento Valley, and Contra Costa County, among others, have been sprayed with pesticides to kill the critters in areas around vineyards. 

“What you’ve got is a bureaucratic juggernaut going across the straight following the glassy-winged sharpshooter,” said Blume. 

The activists main complaint is government’s use of pesticides to kill the bugs. Sevin is the pesticide that has been used in some communities, such as Fresno and Sacramento. The San Francisco based Pesticide Action Network of North America lists it as a “bad actor pesticide,” or a pesticide that is particularly harmful. The active ingredient, carbaryl, is a neuro-toxin that can cause detrimental effects on chemically sensitive and immuno-compromised individuals, for example people with Parksinsons, asthma, AIDS, or cancer.  

Linda McElver is founder of the Canaries Foundation for chemically sensitive individuals, a condition where even a small exposure to harmful chemicals can cause a major physical reaction. She visited Brentwood, a community in east Contra Costa County that was sprayed, and said exposure to the chemicals provoked nausea, slurring of speech, “like having rubber bands on your tongue” and difficulty thinking. But, despite the health impacts McElver described, she said that in many counties there is no way to stop the spraying, even on private property.  

But she has advocated another solution.  

“There are a million chemically sensitive people in California,” she said. “If the president doesn’t listen, a dollar a person can start a lawsuit.” 

Jessica Hamburger, project coordinator for the Pesticide Action Network said that pesticide use was a shortsighted fix for a long term problem.  

“Because it only takes a small number of insects to infect the vine, it’s different from an insect that eats plants,” she said. “With this if you kill 95 percent it can still infect huge amounts of plants. They’re going to be there in large enough numbers to transmit the disease. In the long term you’re going to need to find a way to prevent or cure Pierce’s disease.” 

Farmer Blume thinks he knows the way — go organic. He said that many vintners plant grapevines in inferior soil, in part because “stressed” grapes may produce tastier wine. But, he said, that also makes the vines weaker and more susceptible to Pierce’s disease. “If we get enough organic activity in the soil, the soil goes from being bacteria dominated to being fungus dominated.”  

He said that the fungus’ can then overcome the bacteria that produces Pierce’s.  

Panelists admitted that no hard research has proven organic vines are less susceptible to Pierce’s disease.  

Although panelists argued against pesticide use as the most urgent measure to consider, they also criticized long-term plans to stop the sharpshooter. 

Blume censured UC scientist’s plans to genetically modify grape vines to make them resistant to Pierce’s, saying that any kind of genetic modification can produce unexpected and dangerous results.  

“It’s like hitting metal with a hammer versus hitting a dog with a hammer,” he said, noting that the dog won’t react to getting hit with a hammer in the same way twice. “Biology learns and changes,” he said. “This dang bug is really sharp, it really knows how to adjust.” 

Although Gov. Gray Davis has declared a state of emergency, each county can determine their own mechanisms for implementing the statewide plan. Sonoma County officials included a provision that no aerial spraying of pesticides be used, and Santa Cruz County officials said people have the right not to be sprayed.  

Maxina Ventura, founder of East Bay pesticide alert, said that Alameda County officials have already submitted their glassy winged sharp-shooter work plan to the state department of food and agriculture, though this could not be confirmed. 

Brooke Casey, who has been involved in no-spray campaigns in Sonoma, attended Saturday’s meeting. 

“I think it’s really scary that we don’t learn about these things unless we hear them from the right people,” she said. “It’s really important for me as an activist to see things as a person and in my own backyard. It’s not just an intellectual understanding of pesticides, I can feel it.”