Whitewashing the Moth? 

Opponents of the government's war on the light brown apple moth are worried that the National Academy of Sciences may effectively endorse more aerial spraying.

The light brown apple moth has been out of the headlines for a while, but it may be coming back with a vengeance. State and federal officials are finishing up an environmental impact report on their plans to eradicate the insect, and hope to soon launch a new round of aerial pesticide spraying. Opponents, meanwhile, are gearing up for another fight to halt the government's plans, and had been hoping for help from the National Academy of Sciences. But now they're worried that the academy may effectively endorse the massive eradication effort.

A panel from the academy has been looking into the light brown apple moth over the past two months and is poised to release a report next week. At first, opponents of the government's extermination plan welcomed the academy's review because they believe that state and federal officials have wildly overstated the moth's threat to California crops and native plants. But now they fear that the academy's report may be nothing more than a whitewash. "It is paid science, and in my opinion will be yet another in a long list of examples of how bureaucracies buy the science they want and then claim their positions have been independently supported," Roy Upton, a leading opponent of aerial spraying and a member of the grassroots group Citizens for Health, wrote in a letter last month to the academy panel.

The controversy over the light brown apple moth first exploded nearly two years ago when the California Department of Food and Agriculture started spraying pesticides over populated areas in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. State and federal officials planned to spray over the East Bay too and claimed the moth was a grave threat both to California's lucrative agricultural industry and to native pine and redwood forests. The US Department of Agriculture has estimated that the moth could inflict up to $118 million in damage each year to apple, grape, orange, and pear crops alone.

But after hundreds of people reported becoming sick from the aerial spraying, and anti-pesticide activists and public agencies filed suit, state officials temporarily halted the eradication plan. A Santa Cruz County judge ruled that the state could not start spraying again until it had conducted an environmental review. But that review is now nearly complete — the last public hearing on it was held in downtown Oakland last week — and state officials are readying themselves for a new round of spraying. (Like most such environmental reviews, it substantiates rather than questions what the public agency wants.) Although the state has promised not to spray in urban areas and has changed pesticides, opponents say the new chemicals have not been thoroughly tested and that damage to rural areas, including plants and animals, has not been adequately examined. Like the last round of spraying, the state plans to use pheromones to disrupt the moth's mating habits.

In addition to filing lawsuits, some opponents of the government's war on the moth filed a petition with the USDA, requesting that it officially downgrade the light brown apple moth's status from major pest to one that farmers can control on their own. Such a reclassification would permanently halt the mandated widespread use of pesticides. The upcoming National Academy of Sciences report is partly in response to the petition. Some experts had high hopes for the petition, which was written by Upton and Daniel Harder, a botanist and director of the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, because they say it represents the most thorough scientific review of the moth to date. The hundred-plus page petition has been endorsed by top researchers in the field, including Frank Zalom and James Carey, two respected professors of entomology at UC Davis.

Zalom told Eco Watch that the government's plan to exterminate the moth is a waste of time and money because the bug is already "tremendously widespread" in California. The moth has been trapped in at least fifteen counties — and could be in three times that many. Researchers also have found heavy concentrations in urban areas, particularly in San Francisco, which further complicates any eradication effort. Moreover, the fact that the moth has been in California already for at least several years and has yet to inflict significant damage suggests that the government's concerns are overblown, Zalom said. "I think the more rational approach would be to reclassify it," he said, "and have growers learn to live with it."

Carey, meanwhile, says there is strong reason to believe that the moth has actually been here for thirty to fifty years because of its distribution pattern throughout California. At a state senate hearing last month, Carey called the moth "widespread and entrenched," adding that there "is every reason to believe" that the moth is in every county in the state. And like Zalom, he believes that the $90 million extermination campaign is foolhardy. "There is no precedent for eradicating any moth species anywhere in the world," he said at the hearing.

As for the petition itself, it provides a convincing case for why the light brown apple moth should not be feared. It points to research that notes that the moth has lived for more than one hundred years in Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii without any report of sustained damage to crops or local flora. The reason is that the moth has several natural predators and parasites that keep it in check, including wasps and spiders. In fact, once farmers stopped using poisonous organophosphate insecticides that also kill the moth's predators and parasites, they had no problem keeping the light brown apple moth in check — even with the tough US standards for exports. Indeed, there is strong reason to believe that Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii would not pay much attention to the moth were it not for the USDA's quarantine. Plus, the petition notes that there is no convincing evidence that the moth presents a serious threat to forests in places where it has flourished.

The petition also points to scientific research that shows the moth has lived for several decades in Great Britain, Ireland, Eastern Europe, and India without serious problems — again, apparently because of natural predators. In fact, the 28 countries of the European Union do not quarantine for the light brown apple moth because they consider it a minor pest. The moth feeds on a wide variety of leaves and is what's known as a leafroller, because in its larval stage, it rolls itself up in a leaf for protection. However, the vast majority of larvae never become moths in part because parasites, such as wasps, lay their eggs inside the moth larvae, thereby taking them over and killing them.

Originally, Upton and his fellow opponents were ecstatic when they learned that the USDA had asked a panel from the National Academy of Sciences to look into the light brown apple moth. But they became dismayed when they discovered that the USDA had greatly narrowed the scope of the panel's inquiry. According to Upton, an academy staffer working on the issue told him that the panel would not be examining the petition itself, but only whether the USDA's response to it could be scientifically supported. In short, the panel apparently is not looking into whether the moth should be downgraded at all. The petition wasn't even on the panel's official list of what it planned to review for its report, said Upton, a medical writer and editor from Santa Cruz who has worked for the National Institutes of Health.

So far, the USDA's official response to the petition remains secret, but Upton believes the agency has denied their request for reclassification and has hired the academy to substantiate that denial. Upton notes that the USDA recently pumped $3 million into an advertising campaign called "Hungry Pests" to support their eradication efforts. A video ad in the campaign features a young girl skipping through the countryside while ominous music plays in the background and a narrator warns about the dangers of invasive insects. Then at the end of the thirty-second spot, the girl suddenly disintegrates into a bunch of scary bugs. Upton said in an interview that if the USDA thought that the academy panel was planning to recommend reclassification of the moth, it would not have embarked on an over-the-top campaign, nor would the state be moving ahead with an environmental review that focuses on the moth's supposed threat while glossing over any possible dangers posed by pesticides. "It's clearly preordained," he said.

In addition, Upton and members of Pesticide Action Network, which also filed a reclassification request, are concerned about the makeup of the academy panel. They note that one of the panelists worked for the USDA for 31 years on implementing quarantines, while another is a US Department of Forestry researcher whose previous work was used by the USDA to formulate its hard-line stance on the moth.

However, Upton is not without some hope. Among the panelists is Jerry Powell, a retired UC Berkeley entomologist and expert on leafrollers, who was the first to discover the light brown apple moth in California when he found it in his backyard in July 2006. Powell is on record saying the USDA should not quarantine for the light brown apple moth because it's already too widespread.

The academy panel also includes Nicholas Mills, a UC Berkeley professor who has done considerable work on the light brown apple moth. In fact, Mills announced earlier this year that he had discovered at least thirteen species in California that are natural parasites of the moth — thereby providing evidence that the bug is already being controlled naturally here.

In addition, Mills coauthored a study, completed in July, that revealed that much of the Central Valley, Southern California, and Arizona may be too hot, and some areas too cold, for the moth to flourish, contradicting assumptions made by the USDA. The moth's potential range is one of the reasons why federal officials fear it will destroy large swaths of crops. But Mills' study concluded that the moth cannot thrive in areas that are too hot or too cold, and so it appears to pose much less of a threat than the USDA believes, thereby suggesting "the need for reevaluation of the current pest status of [the light brown apple moth] in the United States."

Mills declined to comment on the upcoming academy report or on his research, saying the panel had agreed not to discuss the light brown apple moth publicly until the report is published on September 14.


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