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Citizens for Health LBAM liaison Roy Upton questions whether reported berry damage in Watsonville is due to moths or myths.

By Roy Upton

THERE HAS BEEN much recent media coverage on the damage to raspberries in Watsonville, damage purportedly caused by the Light Brown Apple Moth (LBAM). But was the damage caused by LBAM or by any of the more than 80 leafroller moths that are native to California? Was it caused by one of the five other leafrollers that are common in Santa Cruz County? All leafrollers inflict the same kind of damage. Native leafrollers far outnumber LBAM in Santa Cruz and San Francisco counties, where LBAM appears to have the greatest population density in California. Trapping data from these locations show that native leafrollers in comparison to LBAM are being caught at ratios of 50, 100, and 200:1. The relative scarcity of LBAM raises the question of whether it can be held responsible for the damage to Watsonville berries.

Yet the damaging presence of LBAM has been said to be confirmed by DNA testing. But how can you know LBAM was associated with berry damage when the DNA testing used by California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) is not conclusive? According to CDFA's own 2008 report to the California Legislature, there is a need to "develop an effective DNA fingerprint and identification technology for LBAM."

What can you say about a government agency that confirms the presence of an insect yet admits its own testing is inconclusive? Maybe leafroller overgrowth in Watsonville is in the orange or garden tortrix populations; maybe it is, in part, LBAM. Yet it appears that for CDFA the operating principle is that "there is funding for LBAM, so let's say it is LBAM." When CDFA was aerially spraying our communities, everyone was a victim. These days the primary victims of CDFA are our farmers and growers, who are being held hostage to quarantines because CDFA wants to maintain a program that will help keep it afloat at a time of severe budget cuts. Our trading partners are not asking for LBAM to be eradicated: they only require that LBAM not be present in exports. In Australia and New Zealand, LBAM is lumped with other leafrollers in terms of how it is managed and controlled. LBAM is easily and cost-effectively controlled in agriculture the same way our native leafrollers are.

John Eiskamp, Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau president and a Watsonville cane berry grower, remarked in the June 18, 2009, issue of the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian that "I think the potential damage is humongous--not the pest, but the political damage." Or, as Dave Cavanaugh, a former Santa Cruz Farm Bureau president, put it: "The perception of the problem is much worse than the problem. The moth is no worse than native leafrollers."

The United States Department of Food and Agriculture (USDA), along with CDFA, should put as much effort into changing the administrative classification of LBAM from major to minor pest as they have put into their futile attempts to eradicate an ineradicable minor pest. Until these agencies change their priorities, the public and farmers will continue to suffer at the hands of bureaucrats whose primary need is to maintain funding for themselves. LBAM is a myth, not a moth, of mass destruction.

Medical writer Roy Upton is the LBAM Liaison for Citizens For Health, a consumer and environmental health advocacy organization with 90,000 members nationwide.

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