Chemical warfare over Bay Area cities – Who's afraid of the light brown apple moth?

People in the Bay Area are gearing up a diverse range of actions to prevent aerial and ground applications of toxic applications against the Light Brown Apple Moth in populated areas this summer — spraying of questionable value and safety. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) classifies the Australian Light Brown Apple Moth as a serious threat to agriculture, an “exotic”, “invading” the country, a terrorist that will eat us out of house and home, and devastate 80% of the American ecosystem. It is categorized as a Class A pest, necessitating immediate and broad pesticide use if found anywhere in the country.

In 2007 after a few moths were detected, the state of California sprayed CheckMate — a moth pheromone designed to prevent the Light Brown Apple Moth from mating — from airplanes over wide areas of Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. This summer, the state is gearing up a much larger and open-ended spraying campaign covering the densely populated Bay Area — spraying is planned on the Peninsula in June, and over whole the Bay Area in August. A lot of us will do whatever we can to stop the spraying.

When a retired bug professor in Berkeley came across a Light Brown Apple Moth (LBAM) in his yard last year, the USDA and the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) immediately sprung into action, set out traps to find more, and found so many it’s a wonder anyone still has food on their tables. The San Francisco Bay Area and California Peninsula have been under quarantine ever since, and if you’ve picked flowers for your sweetie, or shared a bag of mulch in another county, you are a criminal, just like the person who got the little bugger past Homeland Security’s beagle brigade in the first place.

After 9/11 the Department of Homeland Security became responsible for keeping “exotic pests” from crossing borders into the U.S., absorbing a large portion of USDA employees, with agriculture gaining an increasingly obvious militaristic image. To those familiar with the history of pesticides, this is not surprising. Agent Orange, napalm, and sarin all have roots in the pesticide industry. Empty pesticide containers in Iraq were portrayed as weapons of mass destruction, and used as an excuse to bomb. Even the planes the CDFA used to spray neighborhoods against LBAM in 2007 belong to a company whose primary market is national defense — Virginia’s Dynamic Aviation, “Partners Safeguarding Earth”, well-versed in “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance”, with offices conveniently located in Central America and the Caribbean.

But what the government agencies are defending here is not our food supply nor our ecosystems but capitalist interests in international trade. The LBAM is no threat to us, but it is a threat to a complex system of agro-business trade agreements, formed not to safeguard human or environmental health, but rather to guarantee supremacy in the marketplace for the U.S., specifically to crowd out competition. Four points out of the CDFA’s five point Mission Statement are directly related to international trade, addressing “invasions” of “exotics”, promoting California’s produce here and abroad, ensuring an “orderly” marketplace for it, and building coalitions to meet industry needs. The LBAM quarantine is a tool of big agro-business to achieve this supremacy.

The USDA claims that the LBAM is damaging crops and forests in New Zealand and Hawaii, but when a couple of exotic plant experts, Dan Harder and Jeff Rosendale, took a trip to New Zealand to find out just how bad the emergency is, they couldn’t find any LBAM, nor could they find any damage. What they found was that the LBAM ceased to be a problem exactly when New Zealand stopped waging chemical warfare against it, and against all the LBAM’s predators along with it. And in response to the trade quarantine imposed on it, Hawaii’s Agriculture Department pointed out that the LBAM not only is not considered a significant pest there, but may even be considered beneficial as a control measure for invasive gorse and blackberry. The LBAM has been in both Hawaii and New Zealand for over a hundred years.

Even James Carey, an entomologist, who was involved in the CDFA’s medfly program, which drenched Southern California, and other areas of the state with Malathion by helicopters, nearly three decades ago, and who is hardly an opponent of pesticides, is convinced that the LBAM is not the threat it’s made out to be, and has likely been here for decades already, causing none of the harm predicted.

What is causing harm however are the pesticides the CDFA is using. Nurseries are forced to destroy or spray chlorpyrifos on any plants suspected of infestation, or close down shop. Chlorpyrifos is an organophosphate insecticide that damages the immune and central nervous systems, is associated with birth defects, and genetic damage.

In 2007, CDFA pesticide applicators marched into suburbs, dragged behind them hoses, doused all things green with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), along sidewalks, into trees, and around living room windows. Bt has made hundreds of people ill in New Zealand, and is implicated in gastro-intestinal problems and damage to the immune system. They also dangle toxic twist ties from fence posts, trees and bushes, in easy reach of climbing children and other curious critters. The twist ties are dipped in synthetic “pheromones”, which the CDFA describes as “moth perfume”, to confuse any male LBAM in the area away from their mates. These are the same “pheromones” that were used in the aerial application, and have not been tested for safety. All pesticides used by the CDFA contain proprietary, secret “inert” ingredients, which are frequently even more toxic that the “active” ingredients listed on the label, and are specifically designed to interact synergistically to achieve greater toxicity than each chemical by itself. They all impact environmental, as well as human health.

After the Peninsula was doused with the “pheromone” mix in 2007, hundreds of people fell ill, including a healthy 11 month old baby who went into respiratory arrest. Homeless residents were especially impacted, as city officials ignored pleas for emergency shelter during the spray. Several pets got ill, and some died, with identical symptoms as experienced by affected people. Among the symptoms were respiratory distress, visual disturbances, headaches and inability to focus, tremors, gastro-intestinal problems, irregular and rapid heartbeat, swollen lymph nodes, and irregular menstruation, including resumption of menstrual cycles after menopause. After some of the “inert” ingredients were revealed to the public, it became clear that health complaints experienced by victims of the spray were consistent with the expected effects of the ingredients in the chemical mix.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2007 sprayings, residents reported that gardens previously full of birdsong and buzzing bees, were silent, as birds and bees avoided the sprayed areas long after. Hundreds of dead birds were “mysteriously” washed ashore. The State denies that there is anything in the chemical mix, that could possibly have stripped their weatherproofing off of the birds, or contributed to the worst red tide in decades, which was later implicated in the deaths of the birds, and blamed on surfactants in the water. CheckMate contains several surfactants. Research shows that red tide forming alga blooms prefer to feed on urea from urban runoff. CheckMate also contains urea, and it rained after the aerial spraying, with storm drains leading straight to the bay, and not all watersheds were excluded from the spray zones. Surfers, used to riding waves during red tides, reported getting ill from this one, some with lasting respiratory effects.

The CDFA claims that there is no conclusive evidence that they are responsible for the devastation, and good money is being paid to “experts” who testify that there is no provable link between the pesticide use and reported illnesses, thou
gh none ever take the time to talk with the injured. That is left to the community, and the injured themselves, who see too many “coincidences” for there not to be a correlation.

This is not the first pesticide program. Nor will it be the last. Even if we win this one, the “pest of the month club” will keep coming back, again and again, maybe by plane, maybe by truck, maybe with backpacks, and subtle ways we have yet to recognize, because they profit obscenely from it. It is no accident that all the invasive species councils are sponsored by the pesticide industry. Programs like these are fundamental to the funding mechanisms upon which Agricultural and Vector Control Departments depend across the country.

The LBAM program is part of a long-standing pattern of pesticide programs throughout the country, where conventional growers declare emergency “devastations” from their own destructive agricultural practices, and beg for state and federal funding to bail them out. Industrial agriculture is at the heart of their emergencies. Mono-crops and chemical use, which exploit rather than nourish the soil and its creatures, cause an ever revolving crisis of vulnerability to so-called pests. Organic farms of great biodiversity, which more closely mimic naturally evolving ecosystems and maintain their own balance, are not significantly affected by these “pests”.

To name just a few of the CDFA’s pesticide programs, in the early 1990’s it was the Phylloxera (which the CDFA can thank for its beginnings in the small State Board of Viticulture, established around this root louse in 1880), in the mid-late 1990’s it was the Blue-green Sharpshooter, in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s it was the Glassy-winged Sharpshooter, now it’s the Light Brown Apple Moth, with the Gypsy Moth in close pursuit. After all those tax dollars spent, and years of toxics dumped onto people, wildlife and the environment, all those “pests” are still around, getting it on with the uneradicated Medfly, the epitome of the CDFA’s devastating and failed eradication programs. And while people are the ones dropping like flies, from immediate impacts like asthma and other respiratory distress, and longterm effects like cancers, and disabling neurological and immunological illnesses, often resulting in equally crippling poverty, CDFA officials are accumulating their nest eggs from a career of poisoning the public, all the while claiming safety for every new chemical they introduce. It is, incidentally, illegal to claim pesticides are safe.

The CDFA is expanding the LBAM pesticide program to the entire Bay Area this Summer. Aerial spraying is planned to resume in the Peninsula in June, and begin in the Bay Area in August, months in and months out, for years to come. Preceded by, and concurrently with, applications of the “pheromones” mixed with permethrin, a neurotoxic, endocrine disrupting, carcinogen, that’s particularly deadly to cats. Applications are planned, in drive-by fashion from squirt guns, on a minimum of 3000 utility poles and trees per square mile, about 8 feet off the ground, just overhead, and in reach of children on shoulders, and climbing. These pesticides are designed to be time-released, and to persist in the environment between applications. Many people who have already been sickened, and previously immune system-compromised, have already left the area because of the CDFA’s pesticide program, fearing for their health, and their lives, and many are planning to follow before the next applications start in their neighborhoods.

Others see no other option than to stay and fight back. Lawsuits have been filed. Reformist legislation has been introduced. Letters written. Protests held. And as the deadlines for the continuation of this program encroaches upon us, people who have never thought of civil disobedience and direct action, are preparing themselves with non-violent action trainings and affinity group formations. Some are talking about blocking planes on the ground and in the sky, by building kites, and raising massive helium balloons with banners into the sky. While CDFA thugs threaten with starvation from the LBAM eating all our food, and threaten with even more deadly pesticides if we stand in their way, and tell us that we have no right to keep them out of our own gardens and homes, that we have “no vote”, people are looking to the USDA’s own Emergency Programs Manual, which makes the best case for joint actions and a united front with our neighbors: One of several conditions under which an emergency program can be terminated is when “Sociopolitical opposition prevents emergency action”.

To organize non-violent civil disobedience and direct action trainings, and for more information, including toxicology, locations, and other details of all pesticide applications, and a comprehensive analysis of the CDFA’s LBAM pesticide program, please visit