The Apple Moth Menace

We were a bit surprised to wake up in the middle of the night last fall to find a plane relentlessly passing back and forth over our house spraying moth pheromones. Especially, since we don’t even live in the area that was supposed to be sprayed. But hey, nobody’s perfect and even in the age of GPS units and so on it’s still probably more than a little confusing to go flying around so close to the deck on a dark night. We’re just happy they didn’t fly into our house.

All this midnight spraying of people and property, was bound to attract attention and it sure enough did. Far more attention than the California Department of Food & Agriculture had been expecting, apparently. And people had questions. Questions like:

Where did the Light Brown Apple Moth come from and how great a danger does it pose to our crops?

How likely is it that the pheromone spray will actually eradicate the moth?

Is the pheromone spray toxic to people?

Is it toxic for plants or other animals?

Will it disrupt the lifecycle of other (native) species with possibly serious consequences?

And, of course, what, exactly, is in the spray anyway?

Had the Dept. of Ag been able to provide some hard facts in answer to these questions, they might have gained public trust and headed off at least some of the controversy now dogging their Apple Moth Eradication Program. But they were monumentally unprepared for the task.

At the first public meetings the Dept. of Ag presented “experts” who, they said, would explain everything. Unfortunately, it quickly became clear that members of the public who’d spent half an hour searching for apple moth data on the Internet were better informed than the Department’s “experts.”

The experts were pretty vague, for example, about which local crops were really at risk. They could not say what the apple moth’s natural predators are, they did not know what, exactly, was in the spray, and they could point to no prior history of use of the product in an urban setting. People left the meetings more worried than when they’d arrived.

The Dept. of Ag has acknowledged these early failings, but instead of realizing that people have serious questions and want serious answers, they’re now spending $497,000 of our tax money to pay a PR firm to sell us on the safety of the program. So far, the new approach appears to be at least as patronizing and as free of actual data as the old.

Meanwhile, like the war in Iraq, the war on the apple moth still seems to have no clear game plan, no reasonable prospect for victory, and no end in sight. But here, as far as we can tell, are some answers to the original questions:



Where did the Light Brown Apple Moth come from and how great a danger does it pose to our crops?

The Light Brown Apple Moth comes from Australia and New Zealand. We hear it is a relatively minor pest down there and that farmers have no great difficulty controlling it. Many years ago, however, the U.S. decided to declare it a major pest. This allowed us to place various restrictions on the importation of fruit from New Zealand and Australia. Restrictions that, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, may have given a little competitive advantage to our own fruit growers.

In spite of the restrictions, the moth has now turned up here, with a population that seems to be centered around Santa Cruz (hey, Australian surfers have been flocking to Santa Cruz for years like moths to a flame, so why not actual Australian moths?). The discovery of the moth on U.S. soil has now given some of our trading partners (Mexico, Canada and China, for example) an opportunity to give us a dose of our own medicine by placing restrictions on some of our produce.

This is the reason for all the vagueness about which crops the moth is expected to devastate. It isn’t fear of crop damage that’s driving the eradication program at all, it’s fear of the economic consequences of losing important export markets. And this is a legitimate fear. The farmers we’ve talked to are all quite worried about it – not one, on the other hand, has expressed any anxiety about the moths themselves.



How likely is it that the pheromone spray will actually eradicate the moth?

Extremely unlikely. In fact, real experts, including the researcher who discovered the moths were here in the first place, believe the moth is well enough established that it can only be “managed.” They do not believe there is any way, using pheromones or otherwise, that the moth can be eradicated.

Eradication may not be important, however. Although eradication is the stated goal of the program, it appears that the most important thing, in terms of staving off produce quarantines, is to be seen to be taking decisive action toward eradication. Perception, as is so often the case, may be more important here than reality.

The massive aerial spraying effort suddenly makes much more sense when understood as a kind of international trade relations theater. The actual outcome is much less important than the show. If we convince our trading partners that we take a tough, no nonsense approach to the moth, we’re hoping they’ll be less apt to place burdensome restrictions on our produce, even if our infestation persists.



Is the pheromone spray toxic to people?

Well, there isn’t any reason to think the pheromone itself is toxic to people, but it comes packaged with a lot of other chemicals and, without knowing much about what they are and without any real studies ever having been done on the effects of spraying the product on people it’s kind of hard to know for sure.

A lot of people reported respiratory problems after the first rounds of spraying, but that could have been just a coincidence. The only way to determine whether there’s a real connection between the symptoms and the spraying would be to conduct a serious scientific survey of the population being sprayed with appropriate controls, etc. Needless to say, this is not being done. Spray proponents are convinced enough of the spray’s safety to consider such a study a waste of time. The sore throat sufferers think the Dept. of Ag doesn’t want to ask a question it doesn’t want to know the answer to.



Is it toxic for plants or other animals?

Again, information is sketchy and hard to come by, but it does appear that it is, in fact, toxic to aquatic invertebrates (i.e. most of the animals living in the tide pools along the Monterey Peninsula shoreline). Since the product will, inevitably, run off into the tide pools and ocean (as well as get directly applied to the shoreline – aerial pesticide application is not an exact science, as we noticed when they sprayed our house), the real question is whether the concentrations will be great enough to cause harm. Will they be? Who knows? The Dept. of Ag, once again, doesn’t seem to have anything to offer but empty assurances unbacked by any type of data.

As to toxicity to other species, that’s another good question.  There just doesn’t seem to have been a whole lot of research …. And no one seems interested in taking this opportunity to conduct research.



Will it disrupt the lifecycle of other (native) species with possibly serious consequences?

Well it certainly is not a chemical “smart bomb” carefully concocted to mimic only the pheromones of the light brown apple moth. In fact, the pheromones of a lot of moths are similar enough that the first round of spraying took place with a mixture designed to combat another type of moth entirely. The reality is that the spray has the potential to confuse and reduce the reproduction rate of a range of species. It is entirely possible that the population of some native moth species will be greatly reduced and (the web of life being what it is) if these moths are an important source of food for birds, the bird population could be affected, which could result in a population explosion of some other type of destructive pest, and so on. There just isn’t any way to know in advance. But pesticide application on an epic scale can certainly result in unanticipated consequences on an equally epic scale.



What, exactly, is in the spray anyway?

One of the weirdest things about this whole episode has been the discovery that the Dept. of Ag reserves the right to spray us all down with chemicals without even revealing to us what the chemicals are. The product’s ingredients, it turns out, are a trade secret.

You might think the government would ask a company to give up its trade secrets and make public its ingredient list before applying the company’s product from the air to entire cities. Considering the staggering amount of the stuff the government is buying, it’s hard to imagine a company refusing those terms. You might also think the Dept. of Ag would see that convincing people a product is safe is futile when they are unable to tell people what the product contains.

This issue became even more surreal when someone accidentally revealed what appeared to be the secret ingredient list on an EPA website. The ingredients, which included at least one potentially toxic compound, were then published in the local press. This caused more concern, the removal of the list from the website, and threats of lawsuits against the press for revealing trade secrets. Then we were told that the ingredient list was for an older version of the product and wasn’t accurate anyway.

The bottom line, though, remains that what, exactly, they’re spraying on us is none of our business and anyone who tries to make it our business is likely to be sued.

And people are less happy than ever. If spraying the Monterey Peninsula last fall was the trial run for expansion of the program into the Bay Area this year, we’d say the Department of Agriculture has a serious mess on their hands.


See Apple Moth Update added 3/15/08!

2 Responses to The Apple Moth Menace

  1. I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

    Jason Whitmen

  2. Ronaldnl says:

    thats for sure, man

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