After months of local government and citizen condemnation from Monterey to the East Bay of the state’s proposed plan to spray by air to disrupt the reproduction of the light brown apple moth (LBAM), with anti-spray bills moving rapidly through the state legislature and with lawsuits temporarily tying up the spray program in two counties, California Secretary of Agriculture A. J. Kawamura announced last week that he has a new attack plan aimed at the tiny moth native to Australia.
Instead of spraying urban areas with a synthetic pheromone, encapsulated with other chemical ingredients that activists claim are dangerous to human health, the department will release hundreds of thousands of sterile moths to mate with the LBAM in the wild to interrupt reproduction of the pest.
“There is no reproduction and the population collapses,” Kawa-mura told the media in a telephone press briefing last week. “This greatly reduces the need for aerial spraying.”
The sterile insect technology (SIT) program is planned to begin in a pilot phase next year with the release of 500,000 sterile moths, Larry Hawkins, U.S. Department of Agriculture spokes-person, told the Planet. By 2011, the program will be developed to the point where 20,000 moths per day can be released.
Where the first sterile moths are to be released has yet to be determined, he said.
Aerial spraying for the LBAM is still expected to take place in forested areas, where moth release is difficult, Kawamura said. Several reporters from the Monterey-Santa Cruz area tried to pin the secretary down during the teleconference on the location proposed for the aerial spray program, but the secretary said he was unable to respond at this time.
Public relations fiasco
Kawamura also sidestepped questions about whether the months of protest, legislation and legal actions had put pressure on the department. Instead, he apologized for not effectively getting the message for the need for the aerial spraying out to the public.
“I want to do a better job of outreach,” he said.
A short-lived public relations strategy that included a no-bid $497,000 contract, which the state gave to the Porter Novelli firm in November, was a key component of the aerial spray program after initial spray efforts in September in the Santa Cruz-Monterey Bay area resulted in health complaints by more than 600 people. The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) abruptly suspended the contract several days after the Associated Press reported that a senior agriculture department official had questioned the need for an “emergency” public relations no-bid contract.
The CDFA has steadfastly asserted that the health complaints were unrelated to the spray.
Kawamura had been doing a good deal of public relations work on his own, going from city to city to promote the spray. The effort on the coast and in the Bay Area failed utterly: 29 cities, three counties and 81 organizations passed resolutions opposing the spray.
The secretary’s forays to the Central Valley were more successful, with towns such as Reedley, Parlier and Orange Cove voting to support the CDFA’s efforts to spray for the moth. (Hoping to report on one or more of the secretary’s trips to farm country, the Planet attempted to get Kawamura’s schedule through a freedom of information act request but was stymied by his legal team, which wrote the Planet saying the secretary did not give out his schedule for “security” reasons.)
After months of asserting that the aerial spray program was the only way to go, Kawamura told the press that the SIT program had been in the works for a while and that developing colonies of sterile moths had been much more successful and rapid than originally presumed. The program is being developed in the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, located in Albany—the town where the East Bay anti-spray movement was born.
Hawkins noted that, while SIT has been used successfully for a long time on insects such as the fruit fly, it has never before been attempted with the LBAM. Laboratory conditions, including what the moths are fed, must be refined, he said.
While there will still be some spraying by air over forest lands, the new program is likely to take the spotlight off the governor, who some suspect influenced the choice of which product to spray: Checkmate, made by Suterra in Bend, Ore. Stewart Resnick, Suterra owner, gave a $144,000 campaign contribution to the governor. Schwartz-enegger’s office has told the Planet that the contribution did not influence him.
Resnick is a notable figure in the California farm belt because the corporation he chairs, Roll International, owns Kern County-based Paramount Agribusiness, which owns Paramount Farms, the world’s largest pistachio processor, according to its website, and Paramount Citrus, the largest fully integrated orange, lemon and clementine grower, packer, shipper, and marketer of fresh citrus in North America, also according to its website.
Roll International owns POM Wonderful, whose pomegranate orchards are in the San Joaquin Valley; Teleflora, a flowers-by-wire company; FIJI Water, which imports bottled water from the Fiji Islands; and Suterra. Resnick recently bought into a venture to grow four million Jatropha trees on 5,000 acres in Yucatan, Mexico, whose seeds will be used to make biodiesel.
Spray opponents cautious
Activists opposing the spray welcomed Kawamura’s announcement.
“It’s a good step,” said Tom Kelly, a Berkeley resident and spokesperson for Stop the Spray East Bay. “I’m certainly anxious to see the full extent of the proposal.”
Paul Schramski, Pesticide Watch director, expressed caution in a written statement: “The CDFA has announced it will still use aerial spray over forested areas. Does that include Mt. Tam, Mt. Diablo, or other locations where the spray could still drift over the Bay Area? Will an environmental impact report be done for the toxic ground treatments that are still tools in the eradication program? The devil is in the details of the continued ground and aerial pesticide use. The eradication program remains unnecessary, unproven and unsafe.”
“We are pleased that the CDFA has responded to the concerns of California citizens and eliminated the most egregious component of the program,” wrote Michelle Darby, chair of Stop the Spray San Francisco. “As there is no scientific evidence to support that it is a threat to agriculture, we strongly urge the state and federal government to halt the entire program completely. We, as a nation, need to reform our pesticide usage. There should never come a day when private citizens are so worried about the health and safety of our families and our world that we must fight the very government that is set up to protect our well-being.”
And Kelly wrote for Stop the Spray East Bay: “We’ve had enough. We insist on greater disclosure, a right to know what we are being exposed to ... A pesticide reform movement has been awakened in California and will continue to grow.”