Monday, September 14, 2009

Shoddy Science

A national panel criticizes the USDA's scientific research on the light brown apple moth but affirms the agency's power to start another round of aerial spraying.

By Robert Gammon
Mon, Sep 14, 2009 at 6:23 PM

As expected, a panel from the National Academy of Sciences said on Monday that the government has the legal authority to embark on a massive new eradication effort against the light brown apple moth, thereby opening the door for another round of aerial pesticide spraying. But the panel also criticized the United States Department of Agriculture for engaging in shoddy science to substantiate its war on the moth.

The 21-page report came in response to petitions submitted by opponents of the government's extermination plans. They had asked the USDA to reclassify the light brown apple moth from being a major pest to one that could be easily controlled by farmers. Such a move would have prohibited aerial spraying or other major eradication efforts that the government is now planning. Opponents believe the USDA and state officials have severely overstated the threats posed by the moth, and have noted that it has lived for more than one hundred years in Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii without causing serious, sustained damage to crops or native plants and trees. The USDA, nonetheless, believes the moth will destroy large swaths of cropland throughout California and much of the southern United States. The agency also considers it a serious threat to native redwood and pine forests.

But the panel from the National Research Council, which is part of the National Academy of Sciences, agreed with the petitioners that the USDA had not sufficiently justified its scientific basis for labeling the moth as a major pest. The panel concluded that the USDA "did not conduct a thorough and balanced" scientific analysis. But at the same time, the panel noted that current federal law gives the USDA wide latitude with its decision-making, and as a result, the agency was free to categorize the light brown apple moth as a major pest - whether it really is or not.

In an interview, Nicholas Mills, a UC Berkeley professor who has done extensive research on the light brown apple moth and served on the panel, said the panel's hands were tied by the federal Plant Protection Act, which allows the USDA to classify insects as "quarantine-significant-actionable" pests if they are invasive species that have caused crop damage elsewhere. Scientists believe the light brown apple moth, which was discovered in Berkeley three years ago, is originally from Australia or Tasmania, and though it has harmed some crops, it is not considered a major pest in any place that it has flourished. "It's very subjective," Mills said of how federal law allows the USDA to make decisions based on qualitative rather than quantitative evidence.

Still, opponents of the government's eradication plans were heartened that the academy panel had found fault with the USDA's scientific research. "It's pretty damning," said Roy Upton, a Santa Cruz-based, co-author of one of the petitions that sought to reclassify the pest. Upton is with the grassroots group, Citizens for Health, and is a medical writer and editor. His 100-plus page petition was endorsed by several respected entomologists and was co-written by Daniel Harder, a botanist and curator of the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum.

The academy panel's criticisms of the USDA included the agency's likely overestimation of how widespread the moth could become in the United States. The panel pointed to research that Mills himself was involved in that indicated that the moth cannot flourish in climates that are too hot or too cold. The panel also noted that it's unclear exactly how long the moth has lived in California and thus whether it truly represents a serious threat. In addition, the panel found that the USDA likely overstated the economic impacts posed by the moth, and its danger to native forests. And finally, the panel said the USDA should conduct a comprehensive review of why it believes its eradication plans will work. Opponents say they won't because the moth is already entrenched in California.

The panel urged the USDA to develop a more robust and clearly defined approach to classifying insects. Mills said that, as it stands, there is a danger that the agency may overestimate the threats of other invasive species as well, thereby prompting other extermination efforts. But it's unclear whether the USDA has the power to come up with stricter guidelines for classifying insects, or whether it would need new legislation from Congress.

In a statement, Cindy Smith, administrator of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the agency had "revised its draft response" to the reclassification petition "to incorporate" the academy panel's findings. But Smith also said that she was "pleased" that the panel concluded that USDA was within its rights to classify the moth as a major pest.

Originally, Upton and other petitioners were upset that the USDA had not allowed the academy panel to review whether the moth should be reclassified but only whether the USDA's denial of reclassification was scientifically justified. In the end, however, that concern appears to have been unfounded, because the academy panel concluded that the USDA's scientific research, as shoddy as it was, didn't really matter because of the broadly written federal law.

Upton said he and his fellow petitioners nonetheless planned to consult with environmental attorneys to determine whether they had any legal recourse. But if the academy panel is correct, then the opponents of the government's eradication efforts may need to seek a political solution rather than a scientific or legal one. At this point, it could require a new federal law from the Congress, or a lobbying effort to convince President Obama's Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack that his agency shouldn't embark on a war against an invasive species without first conducting a rigorous scientific review.

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