Conservationists Bugged By Medfly Pesticides


TWO fundamental forces - protection of agriculture versus environmental concern - are colliding in California over an attempt to eradicate the Mediterranean fruit fly. For the second time in the 1980s, the state is undertaking widespread aerial spraying of a pesticide over residential areas in an effort to thwart the crop-destroying insect.

The aim is to turn large portions of Los Angeles and Orange Counties into a mason jar: stop the obdurate pest here before it moves north to the Central Valley, the vast agricultural area in the center of the state that is the nation's premier food basket.

But some residents worry about the environmental and health effects of the spraying. They are lobbying state and local politicians, threatening a lawsuit, and even contemplating that most Californian of actions - a ballot initiative - to halt the helicopter spraying.

``They're doing this in an urban area,'' says Patty Prickett of Residents Against Spraying of Pesticides, a local group. ``We don't raise oranges. We raise children.''

Chemicals in agriculture

The brouhaha comes at a time when use of agriculture chemicals is undergoing some rethinking nationwide. The clash is particularly acute in California - a state with a strong environmental ethic and one where agriculture is a $16 billion-a-year business, the No. 1 economic entity.

Two questions underlie the current dispute:

Is the spraying safe?

Is this the only way to control the pest?

Both have been raised before. In the most infamous episode, in 1980, a tiny Medfly was trapped in San Jose.

A year of debate passed before Gov. Edmund Brown Jr. ordered aerial spraying to combat the outbreak. By then it had become a huge infestation.

The delay is blamed for costing the state's farm industry $100 million - and for contributing to Jerry Brown's loss to Pete Wilson in the 1982 US Senate race.

More spraying planned

This time things have been different. When a single Medfly was found here in August, it took only five days for helicopters to begin misting sections of the city with the pesticide malathion.

Since then more flaxen-bellied Medflies have been found and authorities have significantly expanded the spraying, to 277 square miles. More is planned after the holidays.

The intention is to hit the infected areas once every three weeks until spring, the main hatching season. After that spraying will probably be increased.

``The malathion breaks down, so you have to keep applying it,'' says Pat Minyard of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the agency conducting the bug war.

While the assault is serious, it hasn't reached the scale of the 1981 spraying, when nearly 1,500 square miles of northern California were doused, many areas at least 20 times.

Still, that is little comfort to the residents whose homes are being dusted. They argue that the health effects of malathion are not known. Thus the chemical should not be used.

They contend the pesticide kills ``beneficial'' bugs that help control other pest populations.

They maintain that the Medfly cannot be completely eradicated, so the aim should be to control the population by releasing sterile flies (which breed the destructive flies out of existence) and bugs that prey on the pest.

``The history of chemicals is that we keep using them and the pests keep getting resistant,'' says David Bunn of Pesticide Watch, a group opposed to the spraying.

The state counters that the Medfly population can, and must, be wiped out. If even one mated female settles in the Central Valley, it could lead to a permanent population. Medflies, which are often brought in by people who smuggle infected fruit into the country, reproduce rapidly.

Crops suffer heavy damage

State officials estimate that a permanent population could cause as much as $200 million in crop losses annually, not to mention damage to home gardens.

Sterile flies and one-time spraying have been used to control outbreaks in the past. But state officials say the latest infestation is too severe. Nor are there enough sterile flies to do the job.

As for toxicity, authorities argue vehemently that the malathion treatments are safe in the small doses used, though people are advised to cover their cars to protect the paint.

All these arguments are making their way to politicians' in-boxes. The Los Angeles City Council has urged the state to consider alternatives to the spraying. The city attorney is researching filing a suit to ground the helicopters. If his office does not act, irate residents say they will.

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