Public Comment

Bugs, Lies, and Special Effects

By Nan Wishner
Thursday September 03, 2009 - 11:12:00 AM

Imagine children morphing into swarms of bugs. See fruit falling to the ground and rotting instantaneously. Many who view these images in the new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) commercials about invasive species (“They’re here and they're hungry”) will likely find them disturbing, even haunting.  

But even more disturbing than the horror-movie special effects is the way the 30-second spots are spawning distortions of the truth.  

Take, for example, the articles that have linked the commercials with the “destructive” light brown apple moth (LBAM) and repeated the latest unsubstantiated exaggeration promulgated by the state, that LBAM is “devastating Watsonville’s berry crops.”   

This untruth is a prime example of government agriculture agencies crying “wolf” about invasive species. LBAM is neither destructive nor devastating. And even though experts say “eradication” of LBAM is not feasible, the state plans to carry out a multi-year eradication program involving mass pesticide applications; that program’s first year cost an estimated $97 million.    

Is it a coincidence that USDA’s $3-million ads were launched during the public comment period for the LBAM Environmental Impact Report? Perhaps if the commercials are scary enough, we won’t question the LBAM program and others like it, or industrial agriculture’s chemical-dependent practices that leave plants especially vulnerable to pest infestations.   

Here are the facts about LBAM and the Watsonville berries: a single blackberry field sustained limited damage attributed to larvae of a leaf-roller moth species that has not been definitively identified. It is impossible to tell LBAM from other native leaf-rollers by visual examination; DNA testing of the larvae were inconclusive. Moreover, we don't know how many other moths were in that field. In the Watsonville area, 50 orange tortrix moths are being trapped for every one LBAM. Orange tortrix is a native leaf-roller with similar habits to LBAM’s. No one has proposed a mass pesticide spray campaign for it.   

A CDFA video shows the blackberry field damage was minimal. In the video, inspectors walk past rows and rows of healthy fruit to find a few individual larvae on leaves. It also shows that the blackberries were a densely planted mono-crop under plastic cover, a combination of agricultural practices that is an invitation to pests.   

One other fact: Researchers raising LBAM larvae are finding 90 percent parasitization, i.e., a predator such as a native wasp lays eggs in the larvae, hatching adult wasps, not moths. This supports what scientists have been saying since the inception of CDFA’s campaign to blanket the state with pesticides for LBAM: LBAM is well-established here, and, like its close native cousins, is already well controlled by native predators.   

Why would the state exaggerate the blackberry damage, the only example of possible LBAM damage they have been able to produce during the past two years? To justify federal funding? The federal government pays for “eradicating” dangerous pests but not for ongoing “control” programs. This is likely why California has seen annual medfly “eradications” for nearly 30 years even though all we are doing is controlling the medfly, which, like LBAM, cannot be eradicated, but, unlike LBAM and many other so-called invasive species, can do serious damage. (Food for thought: carrots, tomatoes, and honeybees are examples of “invasive species” that, today, would likely not be allowed into the country.)  

Labeling every “new” bug a “pest of mass destruction” undermines USDA and CDFA’s credibility and will make it difficult to get the public’s cooperation if a truly dangerous pest appears. Aerial spraying of the pesticide malathion for the medfly in the 1970s and ‘80s did not help the agencies’ case; malathion has since been linked to birth defects, DNA damage, degenerative brain changes, decreased immune function, and a host of other adverse health effects. And, in a sad repeat of history, hundreds were sickened on the Central Coast in 2007 after “emergency” aerial spray for LBAM before courts halted the program and demanded an environmental review.  

As for USDA’s scare campaign: that the federal government is spending millions on ads when teachers are being laid off, parks closed, and 45 million Americans lack healthcare is mind boggling. And that they are doing it to frighten us into supporting programs that are largely unnecessary, costly, ineffective, and in many cases threaten public health and the environment is unconscionable. If they are going to spend tax dollars, the money should help farmers shift to growing practices that largely eliminate the need for pesticides, not create unnecessary and unfounded fear among the public. 


Nan Wishner is Chair Emeritus of the City of Albany Integrated Pest Management Task Force and a member of the Stop the Spray East Bay Steering Committee.