California takes action against damaging Mediterranean fruit flies

California is taking major steps to protect its $14 billion a year agricultural industry from a growing infestation of Mediterranean fruit flies. Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. has declared a state of emergency in two countries south of San Francisco. Hundreds of state workers next week will begin stripping fruit from the affected trees, and federal officials are considering spraying the area with a controversial pesticide opposed by some environmental groups.

The "medfly," as it is called, attacks citrus fruits, peaches, avocados, tomatoes, and other soft skinned or pitted produce. It was discovered in a three-square-mile are near San Jose last summer but has since spread to more than 500 square miles. Initial action -- including limited spraying and the importation of sterile male flies to produce "empty eggs" -- so far has failed.

In the years since World War II, the Santa Clara Valley has evolved from one of the lushest garden spots in the world to the capital of the computer industry. Shopping centers bear such names as "The Pruneyard," but "Silicon Valley" is the more apt nickname for the are these days.

Nevertheless, most of the hundreds of thousands of suburban back yards here still have many large and sturdy fruit-bearing trees. San Jose is the fastest growing city in the United States, but beyond its sprouting suburbs thriving commercial orchards still abound. Not far away, the Salinas and San Joaquin Valleys make California the richest agricultural state in the country.

California, which has always been extremely careful about allowing produce enter the state from elsewhere, now finds itself facing a growing quarantine against its produce because of the medfly problem: Taiwan has banned the import of fruit from the affected area, Japan is considering a similar ban, and Mexico won't allow importation of produce from the state unless it is treated first.

In announcing the state of emergency Dec. 24, Governor Brown stopped short of calling our National Guard troops to pick and dispose of infested fruit as local officials had urged. Workers from other state agencies (including the youth oriented California Conservation Corps) will begin the task next week, however, and the 25,000 member state National Guard has been ordered to prepare for such a job if the problem persists.

State officials hope that this will clear up the fruit fly problem, and that the spraying of urban areas with pesticide will not be necessary. The California Department of Health Services recently reported that such spraying would pose no significant health risk. But local officials oppose aerial spraying, and several environmental groups (pointing to evidence of possible health hazards) say they will fight any efforts to spray the area.

A showdown on the spraying issue could come at the end of January when the results of the just announced emergency procedures are known. The US Department of Agriculture -- concerned that the medfly problem may spread outside California -- has authorized spraying if these steps fail and is stockpiling the chemical malathion.

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