Forget the Pesticide, California Says—Just Send in Sterile Moths

By Andrew Moseman | June 20, 2008 3:01 pm

Northern Californians say no to spraying pesticides.California residents need no longer worry that anti-moth pesticides will rain down from the sky onto their houses. But they should still be on the lookout for thousands and thousands more moths.

The light brown apple moth, native to Australia, invaded northern California in March 2007 and state agricultural officials say it is a major threat to many different crops proceeded to chow down on crops. Initially, the state planned to spray moth-infested areas, including residential ones, with a chemical that acts as a phony pheromone, mimicking the female scent and throwing the males off course so they don’t mate. According to The New York Times, there were “numerous complaints” of respiratory problems after the chemical was sprayed last November. And after an outcry from Northern Californians who didn’t want it in their town, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger relented and changed course.

The state still plans to spray agricultural areas, but will now battle apple moths in the urban areas by sending in sterilized moths. Starting next year and accelerating in 2010, California plans to release tens of thousands of light brown apple moths, all of which will be sterile. As the genetically engineered moths unsuccessfully try to mate, researchers hope, the moth population will crash.

We wrote last month about a similar situation in Malaysia, where some scientists want to annihilate the population of dengue-spreading mosquitoes by engineering millions of male mosquitoes to have children that would die shortly after their birth. That kind of genetic tampering has made plenty of people nervous, and how effective it will be remains unclear. But on the other hand, the political alternative might be to combat pests with more chemicals—in some places, there’s even a chorus to bring back DDT as the answer to the malaria menace, though DDT would do as much harm to agriculture as it would do to the moths, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

The best answer, of course, it doing as much as possible to keep invasive species out in the first place. But at least Californians haven’t gone down the dark path of sending in another invasive species to kill the moths.

Image: flickr/Chance Gardener

  • D

    The moths did not in any way *chow down on crops.* There has been NO crop damage from the moths. The moths are not a dangerous or destructive pest. The moth is incorrectly classified as a Class A pest.
    The best answer is to change the moth’s classification to reflect reality. The LBAM is a leaf-roller. There are 85 native species of leaf-rollers in California.
    Class A pest status for the LBAM was a trade decision to limit competition from New Zealand agriculture.
    The spray they were going to use had known carcinogens, mutagens, and endocrine disruptors in its ingredients. The state declared a (contrived) emergency re the LBAM (no crop damage). Emergency status allowed them to use pesticides without having any testing done on the chemicals. According to people who were sprayed with the pesticide last autumn, in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, the birds disappeared for weeks, and when they returns there numbers were drastically reduced. Hundreds of waterbirds dies. It rained after the spray and the pesticide was washed into the creeks and rivers. More than 600 birds died. Rather than using the precautionary principle, the state response was–There is no proof it was the spray that caused the bird deaths. Very odd behavior. 600 people reported being sickened by the spray. The state investigation into the health complaints consisted of excluding 90% of the complaints saying there were not enough details, and the investigation into the remaining 20 % did not include consulting with one doctor or patient.
    It’s almost enough to challenge one’s faith in the government.

  • chilipepper

    The residents of 12 counties in California still need to worry about toxical pesticide chemicals being sprayed in their parks and forests, ground sprayed by trucks, spattered by guns to telephone poles or toxic twist ties. This toxic pheromone cocktail that had hidden ingredients left over 600,000 people – who filled out their own health form, probably thousands sick in Monterey and Santa Cruz county after the aerial spray over urban houses, kids playing football, jogging path, starting at 8:00 pm and became nauseous, vomiting, sore throats, metal taste in tongue, hot lungs, etc., but had no help or response from the poison hot line or EPA or OEHHA or Health Department. The people had to work themselves to discover with outside scientists and doctors help that: 1) There been no crop damage 2) the moths been here over 15 years 3) So, there’s no emergency – that is taking taxpayers $25++ millions 4) Environmental Impact Report was NOT done, bypassing legal CEQA laws. 5) The sythentic pheromone with toxic hidden ingredients is UNTESTED. 6) the plastic chemicals that delivered that pesticide was inhaled and may cause lung cancer 7) The other ingredients can cause problems with prostrate, breast cancer, and other hormonal problems. 8) Civil rights were made to protect our freedom in our own homes in the USA. So, take this Light Brown Apple Moth OFF the Evasive Species List, so there is no emergency, since there is no crop damage, and this leafroller is doing OK for 15-20 or more years, and get back to other more important agenda. And return the over $25 million to do studies on how aerial spraying toxic pesticide that hurt thousdands of people, killed over 600 birds, killed bees, rabbits, has affected people’s health now and in the future and affected the environment. The 643 people that filled out a health form have never been contacted. Have the health department set up offices to see all those that were sickened. The sterile moth is NOT needed. There’s been NO crop damage. The money should not be wasted any longer. Help the people. Check with the scientists, our reports, and doctors. Local farmers, organic growers know how to combat the moth by planting buckwheat along the outside, which LBAM would should up to first. But since it prefers the coast, it most likely will stay here another 15-20 years, since it doesn’t like the heat, prefers to roll in a leaf (so leaves our PINE trees alone that have needles – can’t roll – you see.. but they added a bunch of plants that the moth would never like), and it seems to be eaten by local predators – beetles, spiders, earwigs, birds, etc. Thanks for lisening.

  • cilantro

    apparently you have not done any research. the light brown applemoth has NOT been chowing down on crops at all. in fact, they really did not find many, and further, this moth is misclassified as an emergency, and just needs to be properly classified in it’s proper non- emergency classification.
    only polyculture, organic methods will keep pests under control, while the plans of government to use serious toxins will only destroy natural predators and sicken people and animals.

  • Dave Miller

    The author very wrongly states that the light brown apple moth “proceeded to chow down on crops” after it arrived in California. However, this is far from being true. The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) has openly admitted many times that there has not yet been a single case of crop damage in California caused by this moth… this moth that they claim is so extremely destructive. Veteran entomologists from the University of California have pointed out that, from viewing population patterns and growth, the light brown apple moth has most likely been in California for 20 to 50 years. And yet CDFA admits not one case of crop damage… not a single case.

  • L Hawkins

    Thanks for covering this issue. One major correction however. The Sterile Insect Technique(SIT)for Light Brown Apple Moth has nothing to do with genetic engineering. While SIT does involve releasing sterile insects, the process of sterilizing the insect has nothing to do with genetic engineering as your article suggested. The SIT process was actually pioneered back in the 1930’s and has been used sucessfully for eradication at various sites and times for Screw Worm Fly, Mediterranean Fruit Fly, Mexican Fruit Fly, and Pink Boll worm. Your comparison with dengue-fever spreading mosquitos is just incorrect…..different technology. There is no genetic engineering involved in the SIT process.


  • Andrew Moseman

    Thanks for the correction, Lawrence. In comparing the two sterilization attempts I had forgotten that they were achieved through different means. Apologies for the error.

  • Cudos

    Since when is the Christian Science Monitor a valid scientific reference resource that warrants quotation on any issue?


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