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War on the light brown apple moth rages on

by Chris Hinyub, published

In light of overwhelming public disapproval, the California Department of Agriculture has announced it will not consider the aerial spraying of pesticides over Bay Area counties as an option to control the population of the light brown apple moth (LBAM) at this time. The agency will focus instead on a “ground spraying” campaign and placing pheromone laced “twist ties” on public and private lands. Opponents of California's war on the apple moth aren't exactly cheering the news. Many fear its a moot point as the pesticides they fear will now be forcibly introduced by agents on the ground. 

Proponents of an eradication program claim LBAMs are invasive and damaging to California crops. Opponents point to a preponderance of evidence which shows the moth to be an insignificant nuisance to the state's agriculture. They question the need for any state measures to concern itself with the entrenched insect – the elimination of which has been deemed impossible by one top expert.

The announcement to take aerial spraying off the table came the same day that Senator Dean Florez, D-Shafter, chairman of the Senate Food and Agriculture Committee, held a hearing in Sacramento where residents of Marin and surrounding counties voiced adamant opposition to the CDFA's plans. Perhaps the fresh memories of a 2007 aerial spraying campaign over the Bay Area in pursuit of the moth in question have something to do with this popular discontent.

It was then that California's Secretary of Agriculture,  A.G. Kawamura, ordered the dispersal of $3 million worth of non-EPA certified pesticides over Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. The agency claimed the chemical was a “non-toxic pheromone” but after hundreds fell ill, a lawsuit stopped the aerial operation. Several tests on the substance being sprayed determined it was indeed toxic. The EPA has since banned its use.  

On Tuesday, CDFA officials certified a final environmental impact report which outlined methods to eradicate the supposedly invasive moth species. Aerial spraying was a part of that plan, but an “additional findings” document issued with and superseding the certified EIR, stated that aerial spraying of moth pheromones was not a management tool being considered. This point was reinforced by CDFA spokesman, Steve Lyle when he told the Marin Independent Journal, “The management plan does not include the aerial treatment.”

In their report, state agricultural officials concurred with a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture announcement that the LBAM program should shift from eradication to suppression and control.

What's interesting is that the aforementioned 1,500 page environmental impact study states, in no uncertain terms, that the light brown apple moth poses no serious risk to California farmers. Furthermore, many experts say that even if the agency wanted to eliminate the insect altogether, because of breeding habits and “habitational” complexities, they could never achieve their goal.

With evidence that the moth has cohabitated with farmers in the state for over 50 years (and in other parts of the world for much longer) and with an EIR verifying “no crop damage,” why is the state agricultural agency advocating a costly extermination program for a non-pest?

It's important to note that last year, a panel from the National Academy of Sciences reviewed the available scientific literature and determined that the agency had very little evidence to substantiate its grave claims about the destructiveness of the LBAM. Although it was the opinion of the review board that the CDFA was engaged in questionable science to promote their cause, they concluded that the USDA has been granted broad authority by Congress to classify the moth as a major pest, and thus the state agency can legally pursue unpopular extermination techniques such as aerial spraying.

A coalition of individual activists and interest groups representing health and environmental concerns have opposed what they consider an unfounded war on the moth since it began in earnest three years ago. Businesses and small growers are also at odds with the negative economic impact the program has had on their operations. According to the Marin Independent Journal, “Earlier this month some farmers, growers, nursery owners, plant wholesalers, produce distributors, restaurant owners and business proprietors from around California signed a letter and sent it to the state asking that the light brown apple moth eradication program be ended along with its quarantines.”

One of the more disturbing aspects of the current program is the stated intent to use law enforcement officials to aid CDFA agents in entering private property to spray a pesticide untested for urban and suburban use (which has proven to be fatal to cats and bees and harmful to children) over vegetation and apply special twist-ties laced with pheromones on backyard trees in an attempt to disrupt moth breeding. According to a statement from the group Stop the Spray East Bay, “the state is prepared to use warrants and police to force ground spray on private property if owners refuse.”

Even though schools and playgrounds will fall within the spray zone there has been no research done by the CDFA to determine the possible impact the permethrin pesticide to be used will have on human health. The EPA has already classified permethrin as a “potential human carcinogen” and warned that exposure leads to immune-system and respiratory problems in children.

For some concerned citizens, the CDFA's motives are highly suspect. It has been alleged that the light brown apple moth's negative impact on California farms has been greatly exaggerated. The proposed “management program” suggested in the EIR would be at least a $100 million budget windfall for the agency. For these individuals, the program is an unwanted solution to a nonexistent problem – a non-problem the agency hoped would garner a more supportive reaction from the public, that is, if it couldn't sneak its plan past the public altogether.

The program would also prove rather profitable to the agency's corporate partners such as Suterra Pesticide owner and billionare agribusinessman, Stewart Resnick. It was Renick's pesticide that was used to sully Santa Cruz and Monterey counties in the 2007 experiment.

Resnick's political sway is not to be underestimated as one might recall from recent news that he was granted direct correspondence with the White House through Senator Feinstein, D-CA, concerning a proposed (and now realized) plan to divert copious amounts of public drinking water to his Central Valley farms. Resnick has contributed heavily to both Feinstein and governor Schwarzenegger's political campaigns.   

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