Pest fighters discuss effective ways to involve public

Issue Date: May 2, 2012
By Kate Campbell
Traffic moves past a citrus grove on the University of California, Riverside, Agricultural Experiment Station. Commercial citrus groves often abut urban and suburban development, underscoring the need to educate urban residents about invasive pests.
Photo/Sara Clausen, UC Riverside

Huanglongbing disease is a death sentence for citrus trees and there's no time to waste: Those key messages have proven effective in garnering public support for programs to control the disease.

And experts who spoke during a meeting at the University of California, Davis, last week said public support will be key in staving off invasive pests and diseases that threaten crops and landscapes statewide.

Citrus farmers are well aware of the threat posed by huanglongbing, or citrus greening disease, and the Asian citrus psyllid, an insect that can carry the disease—but the typical homeowner is not, presenters said.

The invasive pest/disease combination has already hit Florida hard, resulting in the loss of nearly 7,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in agricultural revenue.

But when HLB first was detected in California last month—in a Los Angeles County neighborhood—authorities also stressed its threat to home and business landscapes.

In Southern California, where the state's $2 billion commercial citrus sector was founded, 60 percent of home landscapes include oranges, tangerines, lemons or grapefruit, making citrus the region's largest urban crop. Therefore, officials are working to connect with homeowners and local communities because they have such a big stake in the fight to prevent the disease and the psyllid from spreading.

Media experts, researchers and government officials at the Davis conference said alerting urban property owners to the problem of invasive species and educating them about the threat poses a big challenge.

The main routes non-native organisms usually take into the state include accidentally or intentionally introduced seeds, ornamental plants, dyes, medicines, forage and aquariums.

"We're really good at providing detailed information to researchers, agricultural commissioners, Cooperative Extension advisors, inspectors and border protection agents about what to look for and how to respond," said Beth Grafton-Cardwell, an entomologist from UC Riverside. "We can reach thousands of people that way."

But with Asian citrus psyllid, she told those attending the conference, "we're dealing with backyard situations, which is a whole new ballgame."

San Diego-based public relations expert Sharon McNerney, who is working on communications activities with the California Citrus Research Board, said educated property owners can assist in the response effort through increased cooperation, monitoring and reporting of invasive species to local and state agencies.

There are many other stakeholders in addition to private property owners, she said, including local elected officials, community leaders, master gardeners, landscapers and businesses. There also is the media—radio, TV and newspapers—and the increasingly specialized media of e-newsletters, blogs and websites that need to be included in the communication effort, as well.

Adding to the complexity of educating the public about the invasive species threat, McNerney said, is the need to communicate in multiple languages and sometimes on an emergency basis.

When surveyed, people living in the urban area where the Asian citrus psyllid and HLB disease were found listed their greatest concerns as the ability of the pest/disease combination to kill trees and create a loss in their property investment, ruin their fruit, damage a whole agricultural sector and a rapid spread that's hard to contain.

In addition to assessing the HLB/psyllid threat, experts at the conference presented case studies on the role of public education and community involvement in stemming the spread of zebra and quagga mussels, European grapevine moths, sudden oak death and Japanese dodder.

In San Diego County, which has ongoing infestations and quarantines triggered by species moving across the U.S.-Mexico border, recently retired county entomologist David Kellum said the county works with a variety of stakeholders throughout the year to build a foundation of cooperation.

He said county public outreach activities include ag days, community fairs, school events, career days, county Lady Bug Day, "Seeds of Wonder" events, participation in botanical garden activities and an annual "Insect Festival" founded by the county agricultural commissioner's office many years ago, which has grown in size, exhibitor participation and public attendance.

"In fact, we've had to turn vendors away from participating in our Insect Festival," Kellum said. "This public information event has gotten really large, but it's only part of our ongoing public education efforts. With this foundation, we find it's more effective when we contact the media to announce a quarantine whenever a new invasive pest is found."

Other presenters suggested that when developing emergency response plans, a public education component can serve not only as a conduit for information, but also as an opportunity for community building and strengthening.

UC Davis researcher Margareta Lelea, who surveyed Santa Cruz County residents after efforts to control the light brown apple moth created significant community concern, said among the lessons learned is that those with responsibility for controlling or eradicating invasive pests need to work through and support local networks and they need to build relationships.

"The public needs to be a partner in our efforts to respond to an invasive pest threat," Lelea said. "We need to figure out how we get to shared issues that the public cares about. The community has to be heard and feel like a partner in solving pest problems."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

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