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[whitespace] Glassy-Winged Sharpshooter
Buggy Comindrum: Killing the sharpshooter doesn't have to mean killing everything that lives in a vineyard

Damage Control

Poisoning the glassy-winged sharpshooter means poisoning you

By Tara Treasurefield

They'll be in there immediately with synthetic pesticides," says Lowell Downey. "Before they even give us notice, they're in there." Just home from the hospital after minor surgery, Downey has taken Vicodin to dull the excruciating pain in his belly. It takes a long, long time for him to put a sentence together, and even longer to get the words out of his mouth. But he has a clear message, and it comes through. "Today I can't get up out of my bed. I wouldn't be able to leave if they came here and sprayed my property. That's what it will be like for people who are bedridden."

Cofounder of People Opposed to Insecticide Spraying on Neighborhoods, Downey is a leading critic of the California Department of Food and Agriculture's approach to protecting vineyards from the glassy-winged sharpshooter. The insect, which carries Pierce's disease--a malady deadly to grape vines--has already infested much of Southern California. At present, the best that agricultural commissioners in the sunny Southland can hope for is damage control. But in Northern California, the goal is to eradicate the insect before it takes hold. Because the sharpshooter thrives in hot weather, the threat of an infestation in the North Bay is increasing with rising summer temperatures. Tempers are rising too, as there are clear signs that sooner or later agents of the Pierce's Disease Control Program will use synthetic pesticides around North Bay residents who prefer to avoid them.

To keep the sharpshooter out of vineyards, agricultural commissioners in 15 California counties have sprayed synthetic pesticides in residential areas and public places, sometimes over the objections of property owners and residents. This practice, known as forced spraying, has the full support of both the CDFA and Governor Gray Davis, who recently gave his blessings to it.

In March, the CDFA released a draft environmental impact report on the Pierce's Disease Control Program. The public comment period ran from March through May, and the report will be finalized at the end of June. According to this document, no significant impacts result from spraying possible carcinogens and other toxic chemicals in residential neighborhoods, on organic farms, and at schools and parks.

EDAW, an environmental consulting firm in San Francisco, helped the CDFA prepare the report and reach its conclusion that the pesticide spraying program has no significant impacts. Molly Scarborough, environmental planner at EDAW, says that the "level of significance is determined through the experience of the experts in the field, in relationship to what the [California Environmental Quality Act] requirements are. The conclusions in the report resulted from the analysis that was done."

Nick Frey, executive director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association, believes that the conclusions of the environmental impact report are reasonable. "You have to look at it in the context of relativity," he says. "This program would be small and would have small use of pesticides, whether they're synthetic or not."

But Downey sees it differently. "It boggles my mind that this [report] draft is so hideous on every level," he says. "They have taken every [organic] alternative and discounted it on an individual basis. They didn't look at the entire spectrum of alternatives working together." The report also ignores Downey's request that the CDFA prohibit the use of synthetic pesticides around the most vulnerable, such as the elderly, sick people unable to get up, and children. "[This report] gives agricultural commissioners throughout the state standing to ignore people who request the use of alternatives," he says.

Downey makes it clear that his quarrel is with the CDFA and the governor, not with small family farmers. His parents were born on farms, and his aunts and uncles were farmers. Downey's mother died of leukemia when he was eight, and Parkinson's disease killed his father. After walking through a cornfield, one of Downey's uncles nearly died of pesticide exposure. Downey's other aunts and uncles died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, cancer, and other diseases that have been linked to pesticides.

"I can't say that pesticides are the reason my uncles, aunts, and parents died, and why other family members suffered and died of various illnesses and diseases," Downey says. "But it seems to me that it's pretty unusual that there's so much of it among farmers. I also don't believe that our government should violate us in this manner. It's just plain wrong and, in my book, evil to forcibly spray pesticides. This should be a no-brainer to the governor, who's running for re-election. People don't want forced spraying."

Shepherd Bliss, organic farmer and founding member of No Spray Action Network in Sonoma County, is also concerned about the implications of the environmental impact report. "It's a prescription for the worst kind of terrorism: state terrorism," he says. "The people who are going to suffer are those who are trying to garden organically or who are trying to care for a family member who is compromised."

Downey and Bliss are not alone in their opinion of the report. More than 50 environmental groups charge that the draft report violates several mandatory requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act. To get their claims into the record--as groundwork for a lawsuit--they signed a 17-page letter that describes violations to the act in detail.

A major concern of critics is the report's conclusion that spraying pesticides on organic farms would have little impact. The report reasons that though spraying on an organic farm would invalidate its organic certification, which takes three years to obtain, the loss is not significant because it would be temporary. Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner John Westoby explains why this isn't as strange as it may seem. "If an organic farm is treated during an eradication with a nonorganic material, they would lose their organic status for that year, but not for the next year," he says.

But Brian Leahy, president of California Certified Organic Farmers, says that forcing pesticides on an organic farmer is like forcing a recovering alcoholic to drink. "On organic farms, you slowly build up beneficial insects. You're trying to get your system back in balance. [Synthetic pesticides] would throw it off again."

Organic agriculture has been growing at the rate of 20 percent each year for more than ten years. A $78 million industry in 1978, it's now worth $8 billion nationwide. But because only I percent of California agriculture is organic, the loss of even one farm to the war against the sharpshooter would be significant, says Leahy. In addition, any synthetic pesticides the state forces on organic farmers may increase pollution in rivers and streams; endanger fish, birds, humans and other species; and hurt grocers that sell organic foods and consumers that buy them.

Ned Hill, president of the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance, says that he has no objection to organic alternatives. "[But] having the insect around--not just for grape growers but for the environment as a whole--is unacceptable," he says. "If people can do it with organic alternatives, that's fine. We [just] don't want to live with the insect."

Nick Frey feels the same way. He reasons that doing whatever it takes to eradicate small sharpshooter infestations will eliminate the need for massive spraying to eradicate larger infestations. If the CDFA and the agricultural commissioner decide that forced spraying is necessary, Frey won't object. Until then, he'll support those who want to avoid synthetic pesticides. "I still remain optimistic that you can use conventional products on those properties where people give you permission and use alternatives elsewhere."

Westoby says that if the sharpshooter infests an organic farm, he'll apply a certified organic repellent, such as kaolin clay, to move the insects to the foliage around the farm, and spray them with synthetic pesticides there. He'll take a similar approach for residents who prefer alternatives.

Even so, Jay Van Rein, information officer at the CDFA, says, "If you have an urgent infestation, one that's immediately threatening a crop, the agricultural commissioner may go in [with synthetic pesticides] right away." That doesn't sit right with Clarence Jenkins, owner of Madrone Vineyards in Sonoma. He has mixed feelings about forced spraying. "Being a property owner, that's a tough decision. It's just another deal where the government's coming in and doing things. [But] I know in certain areas, guys are losing so many vines and it becomes a family issue. It's real tough."

Health professionals also question the justice of forced spraying on private property and public places, and question the CDFA's finding that no one is likely to receive a high enough dose of the poison to be affected. Gail Dubinsky, M.D., in Sebastopol points out that there's really no way to predict how much contact children would have with treated foliage. In addition, she says, "No one knows the cumulative effects of low exposures over time."

Though the CDFA relies heavily on synthetic pesticides, it has made some space for predatory wasps from Mexico. The Santa Clara County agricultural commissioner is using the wasps along with Admire, the brand name of a pesticide called imidacloprid, to control a sharpshooter infestation in Cupertino. Imidacloprid is a potential groundwater contaminant, but as chemicals go, it's comparatively benign. Then again, it's also comparatively new. Susan Kegley, Ph.D., staff scientist at Pesticide Action Network, says, "We didn't know about the hazards with DDT until 10 or 20 years had passed."

While he views synthetic pesticides as a short-term solution at best, Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, sympathizes with the CDFA and the wine industry. "Maybe one of the benefits that will come out of this is that urban and suburban consumers will better understand the challenges that all farmers face," he says. "You fight long and hard just to save your house, and when the research institutions can only deliver a chemical solution, you're going to think long and hard about not using it. Urban and rural residents need to understand the stress that comes with that."

It's possible that the Pierce's Disease Control Program and draft report would have a different look if the people who developed them had a greater investment in organic farming, environmental protection, and human health. Gallo Winery is the only organic farming/environmental representative on the CDFA's ongoing Pierce's disease advisory task force. The remaining 15 members of the task force, appointed by CDFA secretary Bill Lyons, represent agribusiness, the wine industry, government agencies, and university scientists, who receive a significant amount of financial support from pesticide and biotech manufacturers.

Nonetheless, organic alternatives are gaining ground. The University of California Extension in Kern County advocates Surround to protect vineyards from the sharpshooter. This is the brand name of kaolin clay, the organic repellent that Agricultural Commissioner John Westoby plans to use in Sonoma County. Gary Puterka, research entomologist with the USDA, says that "in Kern County, we compared three biweekly applications of Surround to six weekly applications of conventional insecticides [including Lorsban and carbaryl]. Surround did better or as well over a six-week period in depressing [the sharpshooter] in grapes. The problem with insecticides is that you spray and kill them out one day, and they're back two days later. With Surround, the residue remains effective for weeks."

Because Surround is primarily a repellent, the USDA recommends mixing it with an insecticide to get both quick knockdown and protection from future infestation. An organic alternative, says Puterka, is to mix organic insecticidal soap or neem oil in the tank with Surround. In addition, kaolin clay alone sometimes kills the insect. "If you have nymphs hatch out on a kaolin treated plant, they usually end up dying. Adults often die too," says Puterka.

Kaolin clay may be the long-awaited solution to the standoff between grape growers and opponents of forced spraying, as Puterka says that the obvious place to use it is in vineyards. However, the CDFA hasn't approved kaolin clay for use against the sharpshooter, and even if it had, the program only covers the costs of treatments in residential areas and public places, not vineyards. Though Surround costs less than synthetic pesticides, it would be an added expense for growers, and they may not want to pay it.

Another issue is that kaolin clay, used as an additive in toothpaste, Kaopectate, and sunscreen, turns everything white. Some grape growers don't want white vineyards.

Ralph Zingaro of Bioscape Inc. in Petaluma is the one and only pest-control adviser in the North Bay willing to help concerned residents control the sharpshooter with organic alternatives. He joins Puterka in advocating the use of kaolin clay, especially on vineyards. "We're looking for something that's safe and effective. Let's just take a vote of all the people in the county. Would they rather be sprayed with toothpaste or poison?

"[Clearly], the organic alternatives are better," says Zingaro. "Not only do they work better on the insect, but the insects will never build resistance to them. With the chemicals, we're going to create a super sharpshooter with them. What's the worst thing that can happen with Surround? Everybody will have bright teeth. I'd rather see that then have a whole bunch of the other stuff."

In the meantime, Leahy says that the California Certified Organic Farmers is monitoring and influencing the political situation, supporting preparations for legal action, and keeping members informed. "It's time to say, 'Hey, this isn't working! You can't spray nature out of existence, unless you take us out too.' We're starting to get a critical mass of people saying that they don't buy the argument that because it's good for this particular special interest, it's OK to compromise their health and the environment. People don't buy that argument anymore."

One thing is certain, says Downey. "I have a four-year-old son. There's no way that I'm going to allow anybody to forcibly spray pesticides in his yard or around him."

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From the June 27-July 3, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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