Fight Against Moth Spray Gains Boots on the Ground

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday April 08, 2008

The state agriculture department’s plan to eradicate the light brown apple moth (LBAM) “is like the 9-11 terrorist policy applied to agriculture,” Miguel Altieri, UC Berkeley professor of agroecology and an entomologist, told the Planet Monday. 

Altieri will be among the panelists to discuss the LBAM Thursday, 7-9 p.m., at the Ecology Center, 2530 San Pablo Ave. The event is sponsored by East Bay Pesticide Alert. 

Numerous cities and organizations are making plans to oppose the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s $75 million plan to spray the Bay Area in the summer in an attempt to eradicate the LBAM, which California Secretary of Agriculture A.J. Kawamura calls a “globalized pest.”  

(Repeated sprayings in future years are yet unfunded, USDA spokesperson Larry Hawkins told the Planet.) 

April 1, Richmond joined Berkeley, Albany, Oakland, Emeryville, El Cerrito and a number of Marin County cities in opposing the spray. Richmond also authorized its city attorney to join the other East Bay Cities already exploring legal remedies. 

And on Monday morning, a San Francisco Board of Supervisors subcommittee unanimously approved measures that will go to the full board, opposing the spray and authorizing exploration of legal remedies. 

The city of Alameda will take on the issue at its April 15 meeting. The North Coast River Alliance has engaged Oakland attorney Stephan Volker to take first steps in opposing the spray, by commenting on the scope of the state’s pending environmental review.  

When the state declared the moth infestation an emergency, it gained the right to do an environmental impact report at the same time it sprays, rather than before it sprays. A number of cities and some state legislators have called on the state to conduct the environmental review before spraying. 

At issue is the light brown apple moth, a non-native pest the California Department of Food and Agriculture says just arrived in California last year. They say the LBAM must be completely eradicated before it causes great damage to California agriculture—no damage has been noted to date—and spreads to neighboring states and countries.  

The CDFA’s view is at odds with those of a number of scientists, such as entomologist James Carey of UC Davis, who says the LBAM has existed in California for a long time without causing crop damage, and Altieri, who says it is impossible to completely wipe out the moth. 

Having characterized the situation as an emergency, the CDFA sprayed Monterey and Santa Cruz counties with Checkmate in September. The main ingredient in Checkmate is a synthetic pheromone, a scent intended to disrupt mating behavior and eventually eradicate the moth. The product, which contains inert ingredients, some of which, according to Albany’s Integrated Pest Management Task Force, are carcinogenic, is delivered through microscopic capsules.  

Some 600 residents of the Santa Cruz-Monterey area say the spray made them ill last year. Since the September spraying, organizations and cities have mounted campaigns to stop the spray.  

The CDFA is not sitting back idly as opponents gear up for a fight. Last week it distributed a paper written by members of the state’s Technical Working Group on the LBAM aimed at countering opponents’ arguments, and held a press conference via telephone where a number of CDFA “experts” reaffirmed the need to do aerial spraying. 

Asked if it were true that the moth has been in California for decades as some claim, the CDFA response was that the 2005 trapping data shows that the moth was absent in California at that time. 

The CDFA and U.S. Department of Agriculture have been conducting surveys for the last 20 years, said Vic Mastro of the USDA. “They were all negative,” he said. 

When the question of the spray’s adverse health effects in the Santa Cruz area was raised, the response was that the illnesses—shortness of breath, itching skin, digestive problems—were not shown to be associated with the spray. 

Mastro said the CDFA is testing new products in New Zealand for use in the Bay Area, which he said are being assessed for “efficiency, safety and feasibility.” They are not being tested in urban areas, Mastro said. 

If the CDFA didn’t spray, would the USDA go ahead and do it themselves? Osama El-Lissy of the USDA answered indirectly: “This is obviously an invasive pest,” he said. “We determined this is an emergency.” 

Scientists opposing the spray downplay the “emergency.” They include Altieri and Daniel Harder, executive director of the Arboretum at UC Santa Cruz, who co-authored a study, “Integrated Pest Management Practices for the light brown apple moth in New Zealand.” 

“We don’t need to be so alarmed about this pest,” Altieri said, arguing that predators such as the non-native trichogramma wasps will eat the LBAM’s eggs while not interfering with beneficial insects. There are native predators and sprays such as bacillus thuringiensis or bt, which are considered safe, he said. 

Altieri also said there should be a change in the way farming is done in California, which generally is to plant one crop only. When there is a variety of crops, beneficial insects are encouraged and harmful pests are kept under control without sprays, Altieri said. 

In his comments on the scope of the environmental review, attorney Volker, representing the North Coast Rivers Alliance, underscored the danger presented to waterways. Before conducting aerial spraying anywhere, “much less over rivers, coastal waters, and densely populated urban regions, CDFA must conduct a thorough and comprehensive review of potentially significant ecological and public health effects resulting from the spray, including toxicity to fish, wildlife and beneficial insects and human illnesses such as respiratory damage, allergic reactions, aggravation of preexisting conditions, and skin inflammation,” he said.