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June 4, 2008 > Horror or Hyperbole? Statewide Controversy over Light Brown Apple Moth Eradication

Horror or Hyperbole? Statewide Controversy over Light Brown Apple Moth Eradication

By Ethan Chou
Photos By California Department of Food and Agriculture

In a 5-0 vote on Tuesday, May 28, the Fremont City Council supported the Alameda County Mayor's Conference decision to oppose aerial and ground Light Brown Apple Moth eradication efforts of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

At a glance, the Light Brown Apple Moth, or LBAM as it is often termed, appears to be no different than the collection of moths commonly found in the state. Measuring about 10 mm long when mature, these insects are virtually indistinguishable from related species, and require a certified etymologist to accurately ascertain their identity. Native to Australia and New Zealand, their presence in California was only positively confirmed in 2007 by DNA testing. Much controversy over this tiny bug has been ignited at both state and local levels.

Generally a yellowish-brown color with darker markings on the forewings, female Epiphyas postvittana are slightly larger than their male counterparts. Every mating cycle, they lay hundreds of eggs on smooth-leafed plants which proceed to hatch into larvae several weeks later; in warmer climates, up to 5 mating cycles per year can occur. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), they feed on over 2,000 plants and 250 crops, and can cause significant damage to both ornamental and agricultural vegetation.

This is the foundation of the State Government's controversial pest control measures. LBAM have a rather unflattering reputation of being voracious consumers. The moths have been prevented from overrunning Australia's horticultural operations only by pest-control practices and the presence of natural predators. Citing massive damage inflicted on Australia's and New Zealand's flora, California is utilizing aerial spraying and ground treatments to eradicate the pest before it becomes well established. Moth larvae feed not only on plant tissue, but also directly on crops such as grapes, apples, citrus, etc. There is potential for harm to prized cypress, redwood, and oak trees. Proponents of state control methods claim that LBAM can cause billions of dollars worth of damage to California's economy due to quarantines on California produce and direct damage to plants.

California is employing a different tactic in its efforts to combat the insect; rather than conventional pesticides, artificially created LBAM pheromones are being used to disrupt moth mating cycles. Aerial spraying of several heavily infested counties has already occurred, and twist-ties composed of the chemicals are being placed in less densely populated areas. State officials are praising these measures as being environmentally friendly as the chemicals are specifically designed to affect only LBAM and related species of moth while not actually killing the bugs outright.

Opponents are skeptical of the action taken against the LBAM. Although DNA testing confirmed the presence of LBAM in California in 2007, critics claim that the moth has existed in the state for many years. Due to their relatively miniscule numbers, many feel the concern over the bug has been blown out of proportion.

In addition, the state has worked with the US Department of Agriculture to bypass pesticide requirements, claiming that the urgent nature of this problem warranted exemption of the pheromone, Checkmate LBAM-F, from the usual approval process. Following an initial round of spraying, over 600 complaints of negative health consequences were reported according to the San Jose Mercury News. Opponents worry that these chemicals can cause problems for pregnant women, fetuses, children, the elderly and people with breathing issues especially since spraying and twist-ties are designed to release pheromones over extended periods of time. That, combined with a lack of proper testing of the compound's effects on the environment and human beings, has triggered public outrage against state policies.

Many communities in the Bay Area have expressed opposition to these methods of pest control. On May 14, the Alameda County Mayors' Conference approved a resolution opposing CDFA use of aerial spraying measures to eliminate the population of LBAM. Fremont abstained from that vote since the city council had not yet had an opportunity to consider the issue. Only four confirmed cases of LBAM have been reported in Fremont and aerial distribution of the chemicals has not been planned for local communities. However, several twist-tie treatments have been installed across the region to purge the insects and prevent the conception of future moths.

For more information about the CDFA's spraying and twist-tie programs as well as area maps of treatment areas, visit: www.cdfa.ca.gov/phpps/PDEP/lbam/lbam_main.html.

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