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Is cure for apple moth worse than the disease?

Posted: Thursday, Jun 19th, 2008

The light brown apple moth still hasn’t taken a bite out of California agriculture, more than a year after its discovery at U.C. Berkeley.

“We have not had any damage in the United States or California, and the objective is to eradicate it before that happens,” Steve Lyle, spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said Tuesday.

Critics say the moth never will pose a serious threat to farmers and that the CDFA is overblowing the risks of delaying eradication.

Equally speculative, however, are warnings that the spray used against the insect could harm the state’s economy and public health.

Dr. George Alexeeff, deputy director for scientific affairs of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment in the California Environmental Protection Agency, said his agency will review studies regarding the pheromone pesticides and look at the pheromone product’s health impacts, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on June 12.

“Cal-EPA’s review will assess hazards of the chemicals in the formulations and then estimate exposures to the population. In addition, the scientists will research the toxicology information on the so-called ‘inerts,’ the ingredients in the products other than the pheromone. In the end, the agency will lay out the risks and its concerns,” he told the Chronicle.

Officials admit it’s too early to assess firsthand whether the cure for the apple moth — a pheromone spray meant to disrupt the invasive insect’s mating — is worse than the problem of the voracious crop-eating bug itself.

Lyle said the state agriculture department remains convinced that the pheromone is safe.

The first confirmation of the light brown apple moth in the Bay Area came in February 2007. The CDFA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, arguing the pest would devastate crops and plant life, quickly set about spraying pheromones in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. Superior court judges subsequently ruled that the state needed to conduct environmental reviews of the pheromone, and the state’s spraying was stopped.

On Aug. 17, the state will end a moratorium on pheromone spraying imposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Opponents call the pheromone product a risky solution that hasn’t been adequately tested.

Recently, one group fighting the spray argued that the pheromone also threatens the state’s economy.

“Tourism and real estate would be major victims of aerial spraying in nine Northern California counties for the light brown apple moth, losing from $200 million to $2 billion, far larger than the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s projected crop losses for all California growers,” wrote the California Alliance to Stop the Spray.

Foster Gamble, a business executive, led the team that produced the report.

The CDFA rebuts this claim, arguing that moth pheromones have been used for more than 10 years in Australia and New Zealand with no adverse effects reported, and that “all Straight Chain Lepidopteran Pheromones, the class that includes LBAM pheromone formulations, are approved for use on organic crops by USDA’s National Organic Program.”

The federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service added, “If left uncontrolled, based on LBAM’s current distribution, this pest could cause an estimated $160 to $640 million annually in crop losses and pest control costs if it spreads to agricultural production areas from the affected California counties.”

Robin Falkov, a New Mexico-based homeopath who has lectured for “health freedom rights,” took a different slant. She said California farmers should not “conform to trade agreements that are meaningless when we desperately need the food in our own country.”

“The trade agreements are about business and money and the United States having to abide by agreements, putting the agreements before the welfare of the country,” Falkov said in an interview Tuesday, arguing that the apple moth should not be used to justify aerial spraying when farmers can market their crops domestically.

APHIS has disputed this line of argument, saying trade agreements are a reality that can’t be ignored.

“If LBAM were to spread beyond the currently affected counties, the estimated losses to agriculture production within California could be up to $2.4 billion annually. Exports of significant California crops would also be impacted,” the agency reported.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture continues field testing new aerial pheromone products in New Zealand, with the goal of finding a pheromone that lasts longer in the environment than 30 days, which will require fewer aerial treatments, Lyle said.

“The idea is that hopefully when a product is selected by the USDA, toxicological work will have been done,” he said.


(Published in 6/19/08 edition)

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