San Francisco officials resist plans to use aerial spraying against a potentially damaging moth
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As the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) pushes ahead with plans to aerially spray the Bay Area with pheromones to eradicate the light brown apple moth (LBAM), the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has signed onto state senator Carole Migden's efforts to ask CDFA to put a moratorium on the spraying.
"We haven't seen this level of concern and debate since the medfly days of then governor Jerry Brown," Sup. Ross Mirkarimi told the Guardian. "At this point, spraying sounds premature and reckless, even though I understand this is a nasty invasive pest."
Meanwhile, four members of the California State Assembly, including San Francisco's Mark Leno, are working collaboratively on a group of LBAM-related measures to address health, scientific, and efficacy issues that remain unresolved since the agency's multimillion-dollar eradication campaign began last year.
Leno's part in this collaboration with fellow assembly members John Laird, Loni Hancock, and Jared Huffman involves demanding that CDFA complete an environmental impact report (EIR) before being able to apply pesticide in an urban area for LBAM eradication, which can be a lengthy process.
"By making this an urgency measure, it would take immediate effect," Leno told the Guardian. "We recognize that urban areas are concerned about health and safety, that LBAM is a real threat to the agricultural industry, and that the other side must be considered."
Last year, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and CDFA both gave LBAM emergency status after the tiny, leaf-rolling Australian native was found in a Berkeley backyard, the first time it was confirmed in the continental United States.
As the USDA's Larry Hawkins told the Guardian, the federal declaration of emergency allowed his department to access the Commodity Credit Corporation, a federally owned and operated entity within the USDA that supports and protects farm income and prices.
So far, the USDA has allocated $90 million to cover the costs of what Hawkins called "an expensive regulatory program," along with those of developing suitable pesticides and a nationwide survey to see if the moth has spread beyond California.
Hawkins claims the state separately declared an LBAM emergency a move that allowed CDFA to go ahead and abate the pest and that impacted the state's normal EIR process.
"Emergency status doesn't relieve [CDFA] of EIR requirements, but it allows them to do it simultaneously," Hawkins explained.
Since then some citizen activists have challenged the moth's emergency status, claiming that there is no evidence that LBAM has severely damaged or infested local crops. But Hawkins says this purported lack of evidence proves that the government's eradication program is working.
"We know the insect exists, that it destroys crops in other countries, and now you find the same insect here," said Hawkins, whose department has predicted that LBAM could inhabit 80 percent of the United States and nibble on 2,000 plant species.
"So, we can logically conclude it will cause damage here. The reason you haven't seen major damage here is because we've found it early enough to deal with it before it becomes substantial. And the reason you won't find reports of major LBAM damage in New Zealand or Australia is because they are constantly using pesticides," Hawkins said.
Asked if the USDA will fully disclose the ingredients of any product the state plans to use aerially, Hawkins said, "We cannot force a private company to reveal all their ingredients. But we have told all those companies that hope to provide products that they should expect to reveal them all."
Critics of the state's pheromone spraying program observe that Suterra LLC, which manufactured the spray used over Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, refused to release the full ingredients until it was sued and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger demanded immediate full disclosure.
These same critics also note that Schwarzenegger, who continues to support CDFA's LBAM-eradication program, received $144,600 in campaign contributions from Los Angelesbased Roll International owners Stewart and Lynda Resnick, who control Suterra, Fiji Water, Paramount Agribusiness, and the Franklin Mint.
Records show the Resnicks donate broadly, mostly to Democrats including the gubernatorial campaigns of Steve Westly and Phil Angelides, and US Sens. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama with a lesser-size donation to Republican presidential front-runner John McCain, proving they play both sides of the fence.
With researchers testing a variety of LBAM-related products in New Zealand, Hawkins hopes to have a product formulated for California by June 1, which is when spraying is scheduled to resume in Santa Cruz and Monterey; spraying in the Bay Area is set for Aug. 1.
"We would like to give communities maximum notice, but we're also working towards a beginning-of-June date, and as much as we'd like to insert artificial time frames, the insect couldn't care less. It's on a biological time table and is multiplying every day," Hawkins said.
David Dilworth of the Monterey nonprofit group Helping Our Peninsula's Environment, which advocates the use of targeted pheromone-baited sticky traps, conceded that even if CDFA was forced to stop the aerial spraying, the USDA could spray anyway.
"But it would take them several months to organize, and we don't believe they have the constitutional power," claimed Dilworth, whose organization is preparing a 60-day notice of intent to sue the USDA and the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Meanwhile, organic farmers find themselves in an uncomfortable limbo that continues to shift. Take the Santa Cruzbased California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). Last fall, CCOF supported the aerial pheromone spray after the National Organics Program approved it, meaning sprayed farmers didn't lose organic certification
But March 4, CCOF spokesperson Viella Shipley told the Guardian that the group is about to release a revised position on the spraying, and could not comment further "because CCOF's government affairs committee has not yet approved this revised position."
"We lobbied for an organically approved product and supported it last fall when lots of our members were suffering because they were in quarantine and couldn't sell beyond county lines," was all Shipley would say.
Meanwhile, organic farmers who spoke on condition of anonymity largely supported aerial spraying for economic and environmental reasons.
"If the moth isn't dealt with now, it'll become a bigger problem, from both an environmental and toxic perspective," one farmer told us, citing the already high costs of controlling such bugs as coddling moths and medflies.
"This is somebody else's pest at the moment, a nonnative pest," he said. "If farmers have to start dealing with LBAM as well, they'll be ruined."
He also cited his belief that there aren't 40 million pheromone-soaked twist ties on the market, which is what the CDFA claims is needed to blanket infested counties from the ground up with female pheromones to confuse the males.
Nigel Walker, an organic farmer in Dixon, recalled the devastating costs of quarantine thanks to a medfly-infested mango that someone brought back from Hawaii.
"Their vacation cost me $60,000 because of lost sales," Walker said. "So, for God's sake, don't bring, mail, or FedEx fruit and vegetables into California, because border inspectors are looking for bombs and terrorists, not produce and moths.
"We live in a global economy, and we have trade agreements that say if one person gets a pest, you have to do something about it," Walker added. "Nobody wants to be sprayed. Even when I spray organic seaweed on my fruit trees, I wear a mask. So I understand the gut reaction. But by refusing to be sprayed, you're punishing the wrong person the farmer who already has to deal with the vagaries of the weather, the marketplace, and pests like the medfly."
Chris Mittelstaedt, who lives in San Francisco with his family and runs Fruitguys, a small business that delivers organic fruit to offices, said he's personally against the spraying. "But as a company, we are going to wait a few weeks before letting people know what we officially think or endorse as a plan of action," Mittelstaedt told us.
Other city dwellers are less ambivalent. Frank Eggers, a former Fairfax mayor who is organizing a group called Stop the Spray, said, "[World Trade Organization] stuff is driving this so-called moth emergency.
"We're allowing other countries to quarantine our produce. And with the global economy, climate change, and travel, we're going be facing this issue continuously. But we can't keep putting poison on our land, or say we'll put you in quarantine if you don't accept our aerial bombardment," he said.
Paul Schramski, state director of Pesticide Watch, worries that the state and federal agencies are still not listening to the people of California.
"If this is not being driven by trade agreements, then I'm not sure what is the driver. We don't have all the facts. But it's not being driven by actual crop damage," Schramski said. "We agree that this invasive moth should be controlled, but it's a false premise to believe that the choice is between aerial spraying or nothing. The state has known since August that the public was opposed to spraying, so why aren't we producing more twist ties?"
CDFA, which used $500,000 in USDA funds to hire PR agency Porter Novelli last November at the height of public outcry, is currently researching pheromone products that last up to 90 days and is also planning to use pheromone-loaded twist ties, sticky traps, and stingerless parasitic wasps in its LBAM program.
"We believe this to be a biological emergency," CDFA public affairs supervisor Steve Lyle told us. "If we waited a year or two, so we could first do an EIR, we would lose the battle and become generally infested."
Ironically, California's best hope for not being sprayed ad infinitum may lie in the discovery that the moth has spread to other states.
"It would make a significant impact if we were to find the insect established in other places," the USDA's Hawkins told us. "It doesn't mean we would throw up our hands and walk away, but it would remove some of the argument that the rest of America is at risk from California if other states already have it."
But until that time, Hawkins warned that if state legislators demand a moratorium, forced spraying won't be the federal government's only option: "Maybe California would have to be quarantined. And now we are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars."