By Annie Spiegelman, the Dirt Diva
You may recall hearing about the light brown apple moth back in 2007. That was when a California Department of Food and Agriculture program began aerially spraying populated areas of Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. This resulted in hundreds of complaints of harm to human health and wildlife. The next step in the plan was to spray pesticides over multiple counties in the Bay Area every 30 to 90 days for seven years.
Two thoughts may have come to mind:
1) They’re spraying pesticides from airplanes over people, farms and coastal waterways?
2) How did this loser, lackluster moth with no exceptional skills or looks, get the starring role in the drama?
Last month, after years of fighting the spray here in the Bay Area, an appeals court finally threw out the State of California’s Light Brown Apple Moth (LBAM) pesticide program on the grounds that it violates state environmental laws.
“This case is about looking before you leap,” said Earthjustice attorney Greg Loarie, who assisted with the case. “The Department of Food and Agriculture tried to impose this spraying program on the public without real environmental review, and the court has rightly called foul.”
The Third District Court of Appeal’s ruling hinged on the state’s last-minute shift in the program’s goal from “eradication” to ongoing “control” of the apple moth. The Department of Food and Agriculture made this major change when approving the program, but without analyzing the health and environmental impacts of an indefinite control program and without reconsidering less toxic control strategies that the agency had dismissed on the grounds that those strategies would not “eradicate” the moth.
The department also failed to study feasible alternatives to its pesticide-based strategy. The court concluded that the state’s analysis “was fatally defective in failing to study a range of reasonable alternatives.” The apple moth program has cost $6 million in federal funds alone during the past two years and targets an insect that to date has done no documented damage to crops or wild plants in California.
Just who is this mystery moth? The Light Brown Apple Moth (Epiphyas postvittana) is a moth native to Australia that moseyed over to New Zealand and Hawaii more than 100 years ago. When Roy Upton’s team at Citizens for Health, a scientifically-based public health and environmental organization, contacted horticultural experts in Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and the UK, where the moth is widespread, the response was unanimous: Why are you asking us about such an insignificant insect? Quit bugging us.
In fact, in 2008, when I contacted James Carey, professor and former vice chair of the Department of Entomology at the University of California at Davis, he responded with this:
“The Light Brown Apple Moth should not be on a ‘Class A’ list. This is not a serious pest. And even if it was a more serious pest, there is zero chance to eradicate it. Not a small chance or miniscule chance but basically zero. Eradication is not possible because you’re not eradicating an LBAM population but you’re trying to eradicate 100,000 LBAM populations. There are millions of pockets of these and each pocket has a separate population. Every little metastasis can regenerate the population.”
Reputable scientists in New Zealand and here in California, who are not associated with or financially compensated in any way by USDA/CDFA say that the moth at its worst has a small potential to be a crop-quality issue. A more integrated pest management plan is recommended by them: Careful monitoring, attracting many natural occurring predators (wasps, spiders, birds etc.,) and a well-timed, target specific, naturally-based insecticide when necessary.
Who do we Marinites owe thanks to for stopping our ’hoods from being sprayed with pesticides every few months for seven years? The lawsuit was brought by Our Children’s Earth Foundation; the Cities of Albany, Berkeley and Richmond; Mothers of Marin Against the Spray; Stop the Spray East Bay; Center for Environmental Health; Pesticide Action Network North America; Citizens for East Shore Parks; Californians for Pesticide Reform; Pesticide Watch; and Stop the Spray San Francisco, represented by the law firm Cooley LLP, Earthjustice and by the City and County of San Francisco represented by the City Attorney.
“This is a victory for all who became ill after the first round of apple moth spraying,” says Debbie Friedman, lawyer and founder of Moms Advocating Sustainability (formerly Mothers of Marin Against the Spray).“Although the court’s decision cannot restore the health of the 11-month-old who nearly died from respiratory arrest after the aerial spray, this ruling clearly signals to the state that the risks of these kinds of programs must be disclosed before the chemicals rain down, not after.”
Seven years ago I was happily writing about blue hydrangeas and English rose varieties when Marin’s fearless Debbie Friedman contacted me at the Pacific Sun and asked me to meet her. She arrived with a briefcase full of scientific studies. She forced me to wake up and smell the pesticides. If a diva can leave her shallow past behind, you can, too! Learn more about the important work that she and her team do here: Momsadvocatingsustainability.org.
“We congratulate the tireless, well-organized efforts of the individuals and groups whose actions led to a court decision supporting public health and sound science,” says Dr. Margaret Reeves, senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network. “Eradication of crop pests is almost never a realistic outcome; rather, ecological pest management or control is the safest and most viable approach to controlling pests and ensuring the success of farming in California.”