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What’s good for us

Submitted by on 1, April 2, 2008 – 7:43 amNo Comment

At last night’s City Council meeting, state agriculture officials offered their latest argument for aerial spraying of large, populated swaths of the Bay Area to eradicate the light brown apple moth: It’s the greenest way to deal with the pest.

Perhaps not surprisingly, neither the council nor the nearly two dozen people who spoke following the presentation on the state’s plans to spray synthetic pheromones over Alameda and many other Bay Area cities this summer were buying it. And many of the speakers called on the city to formally oppose the plan.

State Ag Secretary A.G. Kawamura argued that he believes the moth is a real threat to the state’s food supply, that it can be eradicated and that this is the safest way to do it, because people will spray more and more toxic pesticides to protect their yards and crops if the state doesn’t do this, right now. But the sudden, emergency nature of the plan and lingering concerns about the safety of the sprays they’re using have people up in arms. In an earlier post on this subject, I noted that Albany plans to fight the spray plans, and Berkeley was threatening to sue. Last night, the Richmond City Council also formally voiced their opposition to the spray plans. While the council seemed pretty unanimously opposed to the spraying, it was not clear what its next step will be.

Council member Frank Mattarese forced Kawamura to admit that farm workers would be evacuated from a field before spraying, a courtesy that won’t be given to those of us living in the spray zones. He was less successful in getting Kawamura to say whether the spraying they did last year worked (it’s in process). The state will recount its moth populations before ultimately deciding where, or if, to spray, Kawamura said, and he said it is also examining health complaints from last year’s spraying. If everything checks out, though, they’ll start spraying in June, making their way toward our neck of the woods in August.

Now, clearly I’m not an expert on invasive species. Maybe they really do need to do this, and it really is safe. But I have to say that it’s not exactly hard to be a conspiracy theorist about the state’s plans. Publicly, the state seems to be putting more energy into refuting scientists who have questioned the urgency and efficacy of fighting the moth than looking into the complaints of hundreds of people who said they fell ill after spraying began in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties last year. They gave a high-powered PR firm a multi-million-dollar contract to help them convince the public this needs to be done (the contract was suspended after the press questioned it). U.S. Agriculture secretary Ed Schafer said last week that the moth could cause $2 billion in annual damage to California’s crops, even though a report on the agency’s website generated less than six months ago gave estimates of just $105 million last year and minuscule damage to crops. Interestingly, the moth wasn’t considered a problem in Hawaii, where it has fluttered since 1896 and was actually felt to be useful in helping that state control invasive weeds like gorse and blackberry. And all of this is to say nothing of the fact that since this is being done on an emergency basis, there’s no way the public can stop it, or of concerns that have been raised (legitimate or not) regarding the spray’s safety.

While some of the plan’s opponents likened it to the spraying of Agent Orange, Kawamura chose to compare it to ongoing efforts to control the gypsy moth population on the East Coast. But that process has also generated concerns about safety for the people being sprayed. And the moth’s enduring presence on the East Coast sure could ignite additional questions about whether efforts to control or eradicate it are working.

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