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Commentary: Preventing pests and diseases is crucial to agriculture

Issue Date: June 15, 2011
By Karen Ross and Paul Wenger
The European grapevine moth and Asian citrus psyllid are among the latest costly pests to invade California. The state’s rising population and an increase in the movement of goods and materials into California are among factors that leave the state vulnerable to invasive species.
Asian citrus psyllid
Karen Ross
Paul Wenger

Exotic pests and diseases, affecting both crop and livestock commodities, pose a costly threat to California farmers, ranchers and the environment. The problems occur on several fronts, each with associated costs:

• Decreased crop yields and quality caused by pest and disease infestations;

• Higher production costs due to added treatments or measures to eradicate or control the pest;

• Potential quarantine actions and restrictions on product movement, coupled with the added costs needed to comply with quarantine regulations;

• Lost sales due to foreign and domestic trade barriers;

• Damage to native species of plants and animals, forests, watersheds, lakes, rivers and water delivery systems;

• Lost on-the-farm and beyond-the-farm jobs affecting growers, harvesters, processors, truckers and others.

California is extraordinarily susceptible to invasive species, given the number of international passengers and the amount of cargo that enter the state. California maintains 11 seaports that handle more than 32 percent of our nation's trade. New pest pathways and escalating pest pressures go hand-in-hand with the state's rising population and an upsurge in the movement of goods and materials into California.

All the pests and diseases that California is fighting have been introduced to the state from outside sources, primarily foreign countries. For example, prior to the implementation of the Mediterranean fruit fly preventive release program in the Los Angeles Basin, the Medfly was continually introduced into California, resulting in frequent eradication projects. Several new pests have been detected in recent years, with the European grapevine moth and the Asian citrus psyllid just the latest costly invasive pests.

These pests typically hitchhike with travelers on the items they carry with them, as well as goods imported into the U.S. or smuggled into our state.

California, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agricultural Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border Protection agency and county agricultural commissioners, has built a comprehensive pest prevention system to keep exotic pests and diseases from entering or becoming established in the state, with programs for excluding, detecting, eradicating and controlling harmful exotic pests and diseases. Interception of quarantined pests is the state's primary defense against their introduction and spread.

Pest detection and surveillance ensures that the state is able to detect, eradicate or control small infestations before they become widely established, and uses veterinarians and producers for local surveillance of animal diseases. Some diseases, such as foot-and-mouth disease, are well known and high on our country's surveillance list, whereas others remain relatively unknown until an infestation occurs. Good surveillance and exclusion programs keep the threats at bay. That's why continued, adequate funding levels are so important.

The pest prevention system involves inspections of shipments with the potential to introduce or spread exotic pests entering by land, sea or air, at unloading and transfer sites within the state, and at 16 border protection stations. Additionally, it maintains a network of insect traps and related monitoring systems to check for the presence of new pests and diseases and to monitor the status of ongoing eradication programs.

Studies have shown that money spent on border exclusion and early detection and containment programs is the most effective use of funds, compared with the costs for control and eradication. But securing adequate funds and gaining public support for exclusion, prevention and early containment efforts is increasingly difficult.

California relies on state and federal funding for pest detection, treatment, eradication and quarantine implementation actions. In addition, growers of some of the affected commodities assess themselves to fund a share of the pretreatment and eradication efforts.

Federal funds are available for international border inspection and exclusion programs and for eradication and control programs that involve a "federal actionable pest" such as the light brown apple moth or European grapevine moth.

Due to state budget cuts, many of the border protection stations on highways entering California face a threat of reduced hours, and the closure of some is a possibility if this budget climate worsens. Reductions in other funding areas cause problems for full maintenance of the state's trapping and monitoring programs, quarantine implementation and other programs. Further cutbacks are threatened as additional budget cuts are imposed.

The federal government faces similar budget pressures. This could also lead to additional reductions in funding for a number of eradication, control and exclusion programs. Some of the programs are funded by the federal government through the farm bill and, as consideration begins on a new farm bill, this money could be subject to spending reductions.

Funding for the pest exclusion programs at international borders, airports and ports is derived through the annual appropriations process. Therefore, as Congress looks for more ways to cut federal spending, these funding levels could be in serious jeopardy. Some highly successful programs such as the Medfly sterile release program could face budget pressures and future cuts.

The future of California agriculture depends on maintaining pest and disease eradication and prevention at the highest levels possible at both the state and federal levels. Here in the nation's leading agricultural state and biggest agricultural exporter, effective pest and disease prevention programs are essential to our continued success and must be preserved in these difficult budget times.

(Karen Ross is California secretary of food and agriculture. Paul Wenger is president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.)

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

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