Editor's Notes

Medflies vs. moths -- and the return of Jerry Brown


When Jerry Brown was governor of California, he was almost done in by the Mediterranean fruit fly. So he knows a thing or two about bug infestations and aerial spraying.

It was 1981, and Brown, approaching the end of his second and final term, was running for a spot in the United States Senate. He was the odds-on favorite to win the seat being vacated by the Republican S.I. Hayakawa; his chief Republican rival was a mild-mannered and hardly charismatic San Diego mayor named Pete Wilson.

But that summer, the fruit flies, known as medflies, started showing up in residential areas, mostly in gardens and fruit trees outside of San Francisco. Farmers worried that the pest could spread to the central valley and points south — and experts warned that the state stood to lose $1 billion per year if the agricultural industry got hit.

The flies breed rapidly and turn fresh fruit to mush. That would have been bad for growers. Even worse, the rest of the country was so worried about the tiny creatures that any sign of a commercial crop infestation might have led to a nationwide boycott of California produce.

Brown, still the staunch environmentalist, ordered the California Conservation Corps to strip the fruit off trees in the affected areas, and he ordered the release of millions of sterile flies to interrupt the mating cycles. As it turns out, the shipment of supposedly sterile flies from a Peruvian lab included at least some that were fertile; Brown argued that the error prevented the ecologically sound alternative from working.

But for whatever reason, the flies continued to spread — so the chorus from agribusiness got louder and louder. They wanted aerial saturation spraying of the pesticide malathion.

But Brown resisted. "All I could think about," he told me 10 years later, "was poison raining down from the sky."

That's all a lot of environmentalists could think about too. The governor was knocked around like a ping-pong ball, to the delight of a mainstream media that never much liked or respected Jerry Brown. And in the end, he caved: helicopters, flying five abreast in military-style formation, began carpet bombing hundreds of square miles of mostly residential areas, dumping a chemical that a lot of critics argued could have untold long-term health effects.

The indecision pissed off the conservatives. The final outcome pissed off the environmentalists. Brown lost the Senate race.

When I talked to him about the decision, it was 1991 and I was writing a book — and Brown was mounting a surprisingly strong run for president. In retrospect, Brown thought the spraying was wrong. He thought he had to do it, but he felt horrible about it. Back then, he was a progressive populist.

And now he's California's attorney general, and he's defending the state's plans to bombard San Francisco, Marin, and the East Bay with an artificial pheromone wrapped in tiny plastic bubbles to eradicate the light brown apple moth (see page 10). I know all the arguments, but please: I have two little kids now. It's a nasty chemical, raining down on us from the sky.

The medflies came back. So will the moths. Brown wants to come back to his old job too. You wonder if he's learned anything.

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