Bill in Senate would enhance pest prevention


Issue Date: October 26, 2011
By Christine Souza

To bolster the federal framework to protect domestic agriculture from invasive pests, two U.S. senators have introduced legislation that would enhance agricultural inspections at ports of entry across the nation.

The Safeguarding American Agriculture Act of 2011, introduced by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, would elevate the agricultural mission within U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and enhance agricultural inspection operations so that the potential introduction of plant and animal pests and diseases would be regarded with the same fervor as all other mission areas within CBP.

The bill represents a continuation of Feinstein's efforts, begun in 2007, to help safeguard the border so invasive pests don't get through and harm the nation's crops, said Josh Rolph of the California Farm Bureau Federation National Affairs and Research Division.

"One of the problems agriculture experienced after 9/11 was a reshuffling of critical agency functions. In the case of invasive pests, we were greatly concerned that we lost some of that prioritization by the agency, and also the essential expertise at the border," Rolph said.

CFBF Director Janet Kister, a nursery owner in Fallbrook, said Feinstein agreed to seek solutions to problems that arose from moving agricultural border inspections away from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to CBP, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security. The Feinstein-Akaka bill, S. 1673, aims to address those problems, Kister said.

"USDA used to do the inspections to try and keep the pests out and then that responsibility got transferred to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, whose main focus has been on drugs and thugs," Kister said. "Looking for drugs and terrorists takes precedence over looking for invasive pests, but we were always concerned that more pests were slipping through the border undetected."

A wide variety of pests threaten to enter California by "hitchhiking" in fruits and vegetables brought back illegally, either by travelers as they return from infested regions around the world or with freight, where pests often stow away in wooden crates, pallets and shipping containers.

"Agriculture inspectors at our borders must have the tools, resources and access they need to defend our agricultural industry from the potentially catastrophic losses associated when these invasive pests and diseases enter our country," Feinstein said.

Among its provisions, the bill would:

  • Establish an Office of Agriculture Inspection within CBP, led by an assistant commissioner responsible for improving agricultural inspection operations across the nation.
  • Create a comprehensive agriculture specialist career track that ensures that agriculture specialists receive the training, experience and assignments necessary for career progression.
  • Develop plans to improve agriculture specialist recruitment and retention, and make sure agriculture specialists have the necessary equipment and resources to carry out their mission fully and effectively.
  • Authorize the secretary of homeland security and the secretary of agriculture to enter into an agreement establishing an interagency rotation program for personnel from CBP and the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, to strengthen critical working relationships and promote interagency experience.

In recent years, California has experienced outbreaks of invasive insects including the Asian citrus psyllid and European grapevine moth that have threatened orange groves and vineyards. Other pests including the Mediterranean, Mexican and Caribbean fruit flies, the French tamarisk and the Asian long-horned beetle are believed to have made their way into California through ports of entry.

Winegrape grower Bruce Fry of Lodi said what concerns him are "the potential pests that I don't know about."

"It seems that every year there is a new pest to deal with. Right now in San Joaquin County, there's the Oriental fruit fly. Last year, we were faced with the European grapevine moth, so it is almost a new one every year," Fry said. "The unknown is what is scary; that is why this bill is needed. Sen. Feinstein is trying to protect our food supply, which is a national security issue."

The Safeguarding American Agriculture Act is supported by organizations including the California Farm Bureau Federation, Western Growers, California Association of Nurseries and Garden Centers, and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.