LBAM Mania

Last year when the California Department of Food and Agriculture started spraying pheromones to keep these alien light brown apple moths from breeding, I was cautiously concerned about the effects of the program, but not particularly alarmed by it. But lately, every time agriculture secretary A.G. Kawamura opens his mouth to reassure us the more worried I get.

In a March 30th commentary in the Monterey Herald, Kawamura used an entire column from top to bottom to tell us that the moth was a "bona fide threat" but he never bothered to point to any actual damage done by the moth, nor did he show that the moth has no natural enemies to keep it in check. He completely failed to address concerns about the pheromone spray, particularly the so-called "inert" ingredients that people are worried about.

His chief concern seemed not to be so much with the moth itself, nor with public health, but with Canada and Mexico's reluctance to buy California produce unless it is inspected to ensure no moths are traveling along. In essence, his concerns were primarily with commerce, not health, safety or the environment.

Perhaps even more disturbing
was his opening declaration "As California's agriculture secretary, it is my duty to protect farmers and their crops from the damage that may be done by pests, such as the light brown apple moth." He was clearly asserting his unilateral authority over this matter, as if he was dictator of agriculture and urban pests.

That's right, urban pests.

The spraying program not only includes Monterey Peninsula cities, but has has since greatly expanded to include most Monterey Bay area communities all the way to Santa Cruz and beyond. Additionally, the entire city of San Francisco, and much of the SF Peninsula, Oakland and much of the east bay are also expected to be sprayed early this summer. Apparently each of these areas are "infested" with the moth, and it is going to destroy California agriculture if it isn't stopped.

Take a look at this map
, and notice the pattern of infestation. The places where the moth has been found, and the places where they want to spray, are almost all urban areas. There are a few mountain areas north of Santa Cruz. The only farming areas are around Watsonville and immediately adjacent to Salinas. If this bug is such a threat to agriculture, why isn't it showing up in the predominantly agricultural areas of the state, like the Salinas Valley? Perhaps they're not as attracted to lettuce and brocccoli as Kawamura wants us to believe. Either that, or existing pest control programs are taking care of it.

Two interesting articles appeared in the Monterey Herald on April 11. One said that health officials could find no link between reported illnesses and the spraying last year. Unfortunately, they were also not able to rule out a connection, either. Somewhat worrisome: the health officials never bothered to interview any of the doctors who reported the illnesses to authorities.

The other article discussed what effects spraying might have on businesses unrelated to agriculture, like tourism. There was concern that the spraying might scare tourists away from places like Monterey and San Francisco. It might also affect home sales in areas scheduled for spraying. But most interesting was an observation by a Soquel nursery owner. The paper reported it this way:

"Chris Pavlos manages a nursery in Soquel, just south of Santa Cruz, where seven larvae were found rolled into tiny, sleeping bag-like sacs nestled in individual plant leaves.

The moths didn't defoliate or visibly damage any of the plants. But the discovery triggered a two-day shut down of the nursery, which caused a $50,000 loss in sales.

He's spent an equal amount hiring an in-house crew of moth hunters, who scour Soquel Nursery Growers' 14 acres looking for larvae and treating shrubs with insecticides.

"It's very difficult to get any real rest when they're inspecting you every two weeks," said Pavlos, as he walked through rows of flowering bougainvillea on a recent afternoon. "Even so, we're just not seeing the kind of damages to plants they keep talking about."
(emphasis added.)

Tom Karwin, who writes the gardening column in the Monterey Herald told a story about LBAM found in Nevada. While local authorities wrung their hands over what to do, Nevada state scientists stepped in and as Karwin tells it:

After several days,the agricultural agents held a press conference to report their findings to the community. They announced that they had indeed discovered the LBAM in several locations, but the population was very small and widely dispersed, and did not constitute a substantial threat to agriculture or residential gardens at present.

The agents also reported unusually large and healthy populations of predatory insects. They concluded that natural processes were controlling the LBAM population.

The people of Fained, Nev., took a deep breath of the clean air and went on with their lives.

Because of stories like these, I'm growing more and more convinced that the LBAM threat has been blown all out of proportion, and that fear, not science, is driving the spray program. Indeed, the scientists can't seem to even agree about the severity of the threat. CDFA scientists predictably say its a biggie, but U.C. Davis scientists say it isn't any big deal.

Who is right? I don't know, but please, let's clear up the dispute before spending millions of dollars on eradication programs that will expose millions of people to untested chemicals.


See my previous entries on this topic:
Spray Day! 9/25/07
Spray Delay 10/12/07
Thank You Arnold! 10/21/07

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