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Tuesday, October 13, 2020

I Voted Today: How and Why


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My Legitimate Mail-In Ballot

Last Sunday I filled out my California mail-in ballot, signed it and put it in an old school mailbox as a symbolic gesture of my trust in the Postal Service. It felt good to exercise my right to vote even though it would be all too easy to be discouraged or cynical about the fact that as a Californian my vote does not count as much as those from some other states because of our flawed and outdated Electoral College system. At least I can have a more significant voice in “down ticket” races and the 12 state ballot measures put before us this year.

As for the presidential race I voted for Joe Biden and Kamila Harris for several specific reasons. Stated briefly these include:

· My Orientation as a Political Moderate

· My Conviction About the Importance of the Separation of Church and State

· Caring About the Integrity of Our Leaders

· The Economy, Taxes, Trade etc.

· International Issues

· The Need to Rationalize our Health Care System

· A Rational Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic, and

· My hope to see our Country Make a Meaningful Response to the Threat of Climate Change

My Orientation as a Political Moderate

I find myself both in agreement or disagreement with both major parties depending on the issue. I don’t often have the opportunity to support a candidate who is a true moderate willing to rise above partisanship. I believe that the nature of our primary system is to blame for this issue along with the irresponsibility of many voters who fail to engage during that voting option. I was relieved this year when Joe Biden was able to overcome this barrier and defeat his more liberal competitors. I think that our current president’s efforts to demonize Biden and Harris as representatives of the “Radical Far Left” is not only inaccurate, it is irresponsible and intentionally divisive at a time when that is the last thing we need is to fan the flames of distrust in government. Mr. Trumps rhetoric about “widespread voter fraud with mail-in ballots” and his implicit encouragement of a violent response to his likely defeat are deeply disturbing. I just hope that cooler heads will prevail and that we will really find out what the American people want from this election.

My Conviction About the Importance of the Separation of Church and State

I believe that one thing our founders “got right” was to establish the first nation without a state sponsored religion. The idea for that goes back to early movements and groups like the Waldensians, Anabaptists and Mennonites. It was the Pilgrims who first implemented that kind of separation among some of the American colonies. As a person of faith, I do believe that political power was “instituted by God” as part of “Common Grace” for the benefit of society, but I also take very seriously the words of Jesus when He said, “my kingdom is not of this world.” That is why I don’t look to our political system to be the driver for true “Kingdom” goals — something that far too many of my fellow Christians seem to desire. I don’t believe that we or anyone can legislate morality and that our efforts to play a positive role in society should be more of the “salt and light” variety, not the power of any government.

Caring About the Integrity of Our Leaders

I definitely do hope that we can elect leaders with a strong moral compass since we want them to strive for fairness, decency and mercy and to do so with honesty and integrity — a non-trivial aspiration in the messy world of politics. I feel good about Biden and Harris in this regard and it certainly does not hurt that they are people of faith. I had the opportunity to meet Biden in person in the 1980s when I lived in Delaware and he was running for senate and was coming to small local gatherings (one upside to living in the “49th largest state”). I had a very positive feeling about him back then and I’ve not seen any reason to believe otherwise since then. I think the fact that he has had to go through so many personal crises over the years has given him a kind of humility that also ends up being of value in the political realm. Now many of the terms I have just been using (decency, mercy, honesty, integrity, humility…) don’t in my mind describe Donald Trump. My place isn’t to judge anyone in this regard, I’m just saying that for someone who claims to be a Christian I don’t really see much in the way of “fruits of the spirit” that Jesus or the Apostle Paul told us would be the sign of true believers. “Just sayin…”

The Economy, Taxes, Trade etc.

One of the pro-Trump assumptions before the 2016 election was that as a “successful businessman” he would know how to foster a strong economy. The last 4 years have certainly not confirmed that narrative. According to a rare warning from the chairman of the “FED” we are on the verge of a financial crisis which will further strain the lives of millions of Americans. Part of that is about the pandemic, but there is more to the story. We really need a more rational and fair tax system that does not just favor the rich as has been the case with Trump’s agenda and the legislature’s failure to fix anything. Someone who has the lawyers and accountants to work the system and only owe $750 per year if anything does not understand how the rest of us feel. Then when it comes to trade wars our president said that they were “easy to win” as he initiated several. We are now looking at a record trade deficit with China and US farmers have been seriously hurt — something I care about a lot since I work in agriculture. Maybe globalism ended up hurting the people who work in our manufacturing sector, but Trump really has not delivered for the agricultural or industrial worker parts of his “base.” I don’t expect any magic solutions from a Biden presidency, but it would be unlikely that it could be worse than what we have been seeing.

International Issues

The world is facing extremely serious problems like the humanitarian and refugee crises stemming from the repression that continues in corrupt Central and South American countries as well as in Africa. Middle Eastern conflicts are seemingly never done, and we have been uncharacteristically absent from the diplomatic sphere about that. Our current president has been alienating our long-term allies while being bizarrely “soft” on dictators in places like Turkey, Russia, North Korea and Belarus. No, we don’t want to be the world’s “policeman” or continue endless wars, but we need to be serious and creative about these conflicts. We need to have an active strategy to deal with mass migrations and refugees as people around the world flee oppression and hunger. Back to my Christian convictions, these victims deserve love, not imprisonment, family separation or other forms of demeaning treatment. Can a Biden presidency easily resolve these complex problems? No, but we clearly need to pursue new and different approaches.

The Need to Rationalize our Health Care System

Having reached retirement age I am now taking advantage of the “socialized medicine” that is Medicare and the “government funded income” that is Social Security. That kind of “socialism” has long been a benefit enjoyed by a major part of Mr. Trump’s base among older people. Before I was able to access those benefits, I was for many years in the unfortunate position of being self-employed with “pre-existing conditions” so that I had to buy my own insurance at ridiculous cost. Once my kids had their own insurance, I simply went without for several years and was blessed to have been healthy (I guess I got by with any violation of the “individual mandate” that is so controversial). What we need is a hybrid system where people can either get good job-based insurance if they are so lucky or be able to buy private insurance that does not charge outrageously different amounts for different people. We should ably probably also have access to some sort of “public option.” I believe that is the sort of hybrid approach is what Biden and Harris would support, but we also need a congress that will actually do something on this topic with the goal of solving this problem, not using it for political mileage. President Trump promised a “repeal and replace” approach vs “Obama Care,” but that has never emerged over four years nor has the Republican party put forward such a measure. Again, its hard to imagine any administration doing a poorer job on this key issue.

A Rational Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic

There isn’t any specific government to blame for the Covid-19 Pandemic, but as we look around the world lots of countries have done a much better job of dealing with it than we have. Part of what makes this disease unusually challenging is that it is an RNA-virus rather than the more typical DNA-viruses that people and animals usually have. (Incidentally most plant viruses are of the RNA category and as a “plant pathologist” I can’t resist pointing that out) There is some serious irony about the way that President Trump has “dealt with” the pandemic, and how he and many in his inner circle have contracted this nasty new disease. Countries like Singapore, Taiwan and even China have been able to get much better control of the disease through simple common-sense measures like wearing masks in public and social distancing. I find it appalling that so many people in the US and in the EU have not followed these simple guidelines that would not only have reduced their own risk, but which would have kept them from infecting others. I’m sorry, but wearing a mask is not some sort of freedom-denying ask. Its the practical and ethical thing to do. Unfortunately having a president who doesn’t see it that way has made things in our country much worse than they had to be. Then, when the president got the disease, he had access to treatments that are not yet available to most people. The irony is that the new anti-viral drug remdesivir that he received came out a cooperative research program between the pharmaceutical company, Gidead and the CDC and NIH that began during the Obama era. It is most effective when given very early in the infection as it was for Trump, but there are limited supplies so they are rationed to those with severe symptoms. The development of the drug and it’s large scale production was slowed because of Trump’s funding cuts to those agencies and the reorganization of the White House Pandemic Office. This is just one of the ways in which the Trump administration has mishandled the pandemic. That drug and the mono-clonal antibody therapy Trump received are probably not going to be available to most people for some time and both were developed using stem cell cultures from and aborted fetus back in the 1970s. Opponents of this kind of stem cell research today conveniently ignore this conflict with their agenda. Ultimately we need a good vaccine for this disease, but the long-time success of the anti-vax activists in scaring people away may mean that we don’t get enough people treated to actually get this disease under control. What we need from our highest public officials is an approachable and accurate presentation of the underlying medical science. We have not seen something like that from the administration on many topics which leads me to my final reason for my presidential vote for change.

My hope to see our Country Make a Meaningful Response to the Threats of Climate Change

Finally, I want to talk about how my vote involves my concerns about how our country will or will not take a more aggressive role with regard to finding ways to address the issue of climate change. As an agricultural scientist I am fully respectful of the consensus among climate scientists that this is a nearly unprecedented threat and that human activities play a role in why it is happening. I am most aware of the implications for farming as overall crop productivity is being compromised by extreme weather events and even by more subtle climate shifts. As it turns out, slightly warmer nights reduce crop yields because the plants are more active in terms of their metabolism and thus burn up more of the energy they captured from the sun the day before. Even moderate drought stress which has become more common lowers yields. I believe that there are things that can be done in ag and in many other industry sectors that simultaneously help to ameliorate climate change, and which are good for the economy. When farmers employ technologies that allow them to grow their crops without tilling their fields they are an important part of the solution to reducing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere by sequestering that carbon in that undisturbed soil. There are now novel ways to use sunlight to generate hydrogen for use as a fuel alternative and/or to do that by converting the hydrogen to ammonia as a less dangerous option that retains the same benefits. The cost of solar panels is coming down, and that along with wind power innovations are both profitable businesses and positive steps vs climate change. Biden and Harris are committing to support job creating climate change alternatives and hopefully for not getting in the way of private industry and academic innovation that will enhance these efforts. President Trump on the other hand regularly denies the science around climate change and supports unsustainable energy policies. My hope is that the younger generations who know they will have to live with our actions or inactions will support the democratic candidates who at least aspire to finding viable solutions to this threat.

Conclusion

So, have voted as a way to make whatever difference I can through our electoral system. As small as that role maybe it is the best I can do as one person. If I can encourage others to consider these reasons and vote, then maybe I can raise the needle a bit. If you have read through this all, thank you for your time and your consideration.

Monday, August 24, 2020

My comments to the USDA about de-regulation of a transgenic, disease resistant line of American Chestnut


File:PSM V84 D565 American chestnut mitchel county.jpg

The kind of tree that was once abundant in the US (Wikimedia commons)

For years, public sector scientists have been working on a remedy for the disease-related near extinction of the American Chestnut which was once the dominant large tree in the forests of the Apalacian mountains.  I've heard updates about this over the years at "biotech bootcamp" events and I admire the patience and resolve that they have demonstrated in this ambitious effort.  Here is what I wrote to the agency:

Submitted Sunday 8/23 tracking # 1k4-9ijy-kaf2

 

I am writing in support of the petition for deregulated status for a transgenic American Chestnut event which has been submitted by the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. This submission is the culmination of a long-term effort to develop a means by which this key forest species could be restored to its historical role in the forest ecosystems of Eastern North America -  a role that has been seriously compromised since the accidental introduction of a fungus which is a deadly pathogen of Chestnuts.  Although it will certainly take a long time to re-establish such a long-lived species, this strategy is the best hope we have of  achieving that very desirable environmental outcome.

 

My graduate training was in the field of plant pathology at UC Davis in the late 1970s and early 80s, so I can appreciate the challenge of counteracting this disease of this in natural forest settings. Since that time, I have also had the opportunity to closely follow progress in the science of plant biotechnology in both academic and commercial research.  The decades of experience that now exist concerning the safe and beneficial applications of transgenic technology in global agriculture demonstrate that broad deployment of this advance in a forestry setting is also something that can proceed without any undesirable or unmanageable outcomes.  Indeed, as other commenters have noted, reestablishment of this species could be expected to contribute significantly to carbon sequestration and thus help to address climate change. (see https://pubag.nal.usda.gov/catalog/757823). This sort of solution also needs to be considered for other cases where introduced exotic pests compromise the health of our forests ( see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6680343/)

 

It is significant that this project has been carried out by non-commercial entities simply focused on environmental goals. As an indicator of that, the event in question ("Darling 58") was never patented. The plan has always been to make that and related lines available for free for backcrossing into lines from multiple public Chestnut breeding and restoration efforts.  Many of the other comments that have been submitted to APHIS about this petition are from those researchers who are awaiting the opportunity to be involved in those next steps.

 

The gene that was chosen for insertion into chestnuts is for the very commonly occurring enzyme Oxalate Oxidase or "OxO."  It has always been a part of the plant genome and the human diet so there are no anticipated problems if it is expressed in reintroduced trees. The enzyme is not fungicidal itself but rather detoxifies a chemical that the fungus produces to weaken the Chestnut tree's defense mechanisms.  That kind of trait is less likely to select for resistance, something that is very important since re-establishment will be a long-term project. It is also logical that the trait will be backcrossed into many Chestnut lines to insure sufficient genetic diversity since this species will face the need for adaptation to climate change and other challenges.



 

In the absence of negative outcomes from decades of plant biotechnology, the main objection to projects such as this tends to be based on the "precautionary principle" - the idea that there is no proof that nothing undesirable could ever occur.  As such, that objection fails to consider the consequences on not employing the technology.   In this case inaction would mean that important forest ecosystems will continue to lack the natural "keystone species" which is so important for the wildlife to thrive as it once did in these areas.  The objection to human intervention in a natural system is also flawed in that human activity has already occurred with the introduction of that destructive pest.  Indeed, it makes sense to employ the best solutions available to us as humans who strive to be good stewards of our environment. The deregulation of this transgenic event by APHIS is an excellent next step towards that goal.

 


Thursday, October 31, 2019

Anything Scary About California's Produce Options This Halloween?


California Food Safety Check


Each year the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CalDPR) collects produce samples from multiple steps between the farmers and consumers. They recently released their results for 2018.  They tested a total of 3,666 samples of 140 different crops grown in California, other US states and items that were imported from 25 different countries.  For each sample they analyzed for 400 different pesticides or their known breakdown products.  This is also part of an enforcement program so it is great that they are still so transparent with their findings.



As with previous surveys, the results document the fact that the growers who produce our food are following the EPA label requirements that are designed to insure that by the time it gets to consumers is quite safe.  That safety standard is based on national standards set by the EPA.  For 78% of the crops there we either no detectable residues or residues below the legal limits. Few of the remaining examples were at all problematic


Particularly for the US grown samples, excessive concentrations were very rare.  There were some residues of chemicals found which are not technically supposed to be used on that crop, and as in the past most of these “no established tolerance” cases were on the imported items.  

The residue issues varied quite a bit by source. Those from different parts of the US were similar, but those from China, Mexico and Central America had more cases of "no tolerance." Perhaps the best profile was for crops imported from South America.




301 of the items were being sold as “Organic.”  The rule for organic set by the USDA is that no detected residues should exceed 5% of the EPA tolerance .  In 2018 only 55.4% of detections from organic sample met that standard so they should not have been able to be sold as "USDA Organic Certified."  Imported organic residues over 5% of the tolerance made up 66.7%  of detections which is very similar to that same measure for domestic conventional produce.  55.4% of the detections on imported conventional crops would not have disqualified them if someone was trying to sell them as organic.  Below is the list of specific pesticide residues that were found on organic samples.   


AMETOCTRADIN 1, BIFENAZATE 1, BIFENTHRIN 1, CAPTAN 1, CHLORPROPHAM 2, CYAZOFAMID 1, CYPERMETHRIN 1, CYPRODINIL 1, CYROMAZINE 1, DDE 5, DIELDRIN 1, FENAMIDONE 1, FLONICAMID 2, FLUBENDIAMIDE 1, FLUDIOXONIL 4, FLUOPICOLIDE 1, FLUOPYRAM 3, FLUPYRADIFURONE 1, IMIDACLOPRID 2, MANDIPROPAMID 1, PENDIMETHALIN 1, PENTHIOPYRAD 1, PERMETHRIN 2, PROPAMOCARB 1, PYRACLOSTROBIN 1, PYRIMETHANIL 1, ROTENONE 2, SPINOSAD 16

Those who think they are buying something safer by spending more for organic might want to rethink that logic. Only the 16 spinosad detections represent something allowed for use on organic, and organic still has the legacy of residual DDT metabolites like DDE.


While CalDPR made it very clear that this report was good news, they called out seven commodities for which they though the residues could be a legitimate health concern. These are Dragon Fruit (Vietnam), Chayote (Mexico), Lychee (China), Cactus Pear (Mexico), Star Apple (Vietnam)m and Tomatillo (Mexico).  They also added Star Apple from Vietnam  and Guaje from Mexico because of products found there for which there is no set tolerance.



Once again this is evidence that our food supply is safe and also incredibly diverse. This testing program is different from the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program (PDP) in that it includes a number of more exotic items. However it also includes many more mainstream fruits and vegetables and among those there were no above-tolerance detections. But in both cases the take-away is that we should enjoy our fruit and vegetable options and consume them as part of a healthy lifestyle.




                                                                                                                                        

Monday, October 7, 2019

Don’t buy organic food if you want to seriously address climate change



As we approach the 2020s, many consumers have accepted the marketing/activist narrative that organic farming would be the best option for food safety and to mitigate the most damaging effects of climate change. The inconvenient truth is that organic farming is a terrible option from a climate change perspective. Its dependence on manures and compost involves huge, but rarely recognized, greenhouse gas emissions in the form of very potent methane and nitrous oxide.
But perhaps its biggest climate change issue is that organic farms are mostly less productive per unit area than “conventionally” farmed land. With rising food demand driven mostly by rising standards of living in the developing world, there is a need to boost farm production, and that means the very undesirable conversion of forests or grasslands to agriculture in places like Brazil. That leads to major carbon dioxide release from what had been sequestered carbon in the soils, and also the loss of biodiversity and other environmental services provided by those natural lands.
Background on “organic” farming
The organic farming movement started in the late 1800s and early 1900s in response to issues that had arisen in plough-based agriculture, which had converted most of the prairie land in the American Midwest to farmland through the process of sod-busting.
Spurred by the Homestead Act, Americans moved to the Midwest to claim their 640 acres of government land give-away. Most used the new polished steel plow made by the John Deere company to turn what was once a diverse grassland ecosystem into what became one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. However, the way that these farmers needed to control weeds and make the land suitable for planting was to mechanically disturb the soil, and that lead to the death of many soil organisms and the breakdown of the organic matter that they had made using the energy supplied by the plants that grew there.
Over time, as the soil was degraded by this tillage, it became less fertile, less able to capture and store rainfall and less productive. The common solution was often to move on to “virgin” land and do the same thing to the biome there.
The true innovation of the early organic movement was the realization that for a soil to remain productive over time, the organic matter content of the soil had to be replenished after each crop harvest. The movement’s solution was to import large quantities of organic matter from other sites in the form of the manure or composted manure from the animals fed on those other agricultural acres. This worked, but it was never, nor is it now, a viable solution for US or global agriculture.
Even so, starting with the Rhodale Institute’s publication of “Organic Gardening” magazine in the 1960s and the eventual establishment of a commercial organic industry in the 1970s, the mostly non-farmer consumers in US society were told the story that organic farming was the best way to both feed us and protect the environment.
In 1990, the USDA (US Department of Agriculture) was charged by Congress with establishing a national organic standard to supersede the fragmented certification systems that had evolved to that time. It was a major struggle because the very science-oriented USDA was at odds with the early organic marketers who had focused entirely on the narrative that what is “natural” is always best. The marketers finally prevailed. When the national organic standards were issued in 2002, they were not based on science but rather on the naturalistic fallacy.
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2016 US Crops By Class

So here is the big picture. The only crop category for which organic yields were higher than the 2016 US average was for forage crops for feeding animals. To have produced all of the US agricultural output from 2016 as organic would have required more than 100 million more acres to have been farmed—an area greater than that of the entire state of California, the third largest US state. That amount of new land suitable for farming clearly does not exist in the US, and so that shortfall would induce more conversion of forest and grassland into farming in places like Brazil, leading to major releases of previously sequestered carbon in those soils

US Forage Crops 2016

There were higher yields for organic Hay and Haylage for animal feed in 2016, but for other animal feed crops, the organic yield was quite a bit lower. 17.1 million acres of alfalfa is grown for hay, mainly to feed dairy cattle. 1.71% of that land is in Certified Organic acres. Most of that land is much less productive.

Plant-based protein in an important component of the human and animal diet, but only relatively minor crops like pinto beans and Austrian Winter beans had higher yields as organic crops in the 2016 season. Nearly 2 million additional acres would have been needed to produce these crops as “Only Organic.” This is in spite of the fact that these crops require much less nitrogen fertilization, because they have an association with soil bacteria that fix atmospheric nitrogen for them in trade for energy.


Corn, soybeans and sorghum grown for grain accounted for 50% of all US crop acres in 2016. These crops provide most of the feed and biofuel for the US, as well as many major food ingredients. To have produced these crops as organic would have required 77 million acres to be farmed, something that would drive major land use conversion in places like Brazil and the associated climate and biodiversity impacts of that change.

Small grains are a major part of the human diet. With the exception of the relatively small crop rye, these plants do not yield very well in organic systems. To have supplied the domestic and important global market for these grains as organic would have required 33 million more planted acres, an area comparable to the entire state of Arkansas. Since many of these crops have quality issues associated with where they are grown, there really aren’t places in the US or the rest of the world where this could happen.

The only vegetable crop for which organic yields were higher was sweet potato. Organic represents 4.9% of total vegetable acreage in the US – much more than the overall 0.5% for all crops. Since many vegetable crops do best in specific climatic zones, that significant current organic footprint probably serves to raise overall prices for consumers, even if they do not purchase organic. When that issue is added to the fear of pesticide residues on vegetables driven by the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen List,” this only contributes to the missed health advantages of vegetables in the diets of many consumers.
To have produced all the 2016 US grown vegetables as organic would have required 1.75 million more acres to be grown—something clearly not possible.

Tree nuts are considered to be a very healthy component of the diet, and may even reduce overeating that causes obesity because they make consumers feel full. These crops only flourish in certain climates, so there is no possibility that they could all be raised as organic. That transition would require 1.5 million more acres to be dedicated to those crops.

Organic yields of small fruits are often much lower than the national average. This is particularly true for strawberries, cranberries and wild blueberries. The one exception is tame blueberries, mostly in Washington state. To have produced all of this healthy fruit as organic would have required 238,000 more acres, which simply do not exist in areas with a suitable climate. In the case of strawberries, if the 11.6% of that valuable coastal land had been grown conventionally, there would have been 194 million pounds more strawberries available to consumers, probably at a lower price.

Organic makes up 2.61% of the land used to grow tree fruit and grapes. To produce all the fruit as organic would require a half million more acres of land. The organic vs. conventional citrus crop data is complicated by whether the crops are grown in California or Florida, where a devastating invasive bacterial disease has dramatically reduced yields. The best hopes for the future of the California industry depend on mostly non-organic pest control solutions.

Organic Tobacco constitutes 3.1% of the total acreage of this cancer-causing crop. Hops production, which is a booming industry these days for craft beer brewing, is 1.3% organic. Sunflower, which is the most significant crop on this list, is planted on 2.7 million US acres, and an additional 1.1 million acres would be required to produce it as organic.
Most cotton production has shifted to India and other places in Asia and Africa, because it is one of the very few crops grown in those regions with big grower benefits of insect resistance and herbicide tolerance. Still, there are 9.5 million US acres grown and it would take another 1.5 million acres to produce this important fiber crop as organic.
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Conclusion
So the good news is that organic remains a tiny part of US agriculture. The not so good news is that for key healthy fruit and vegetable crops, these antiquated farming methods are enough of a factor to raise the prices for even those who don’t buy organic.
Eliminating organic agriculture would not be nearly enough to help with climate change mitigation, but some alternative marketing category that would reward growers who practice the best kind of climate-friendly farming, those who utilize no-till methods and cover crops for instance, could make a real contribution. As consumers, our most climate-responsible buying behavior should be to reject organic and its false narratives.
Steve Savage is a plant pathologist and senior contributor to the GLP. Follow him on Twitter @grapedocHis Pop Agriculture podcast is available for listening or subscription on iTunes and Google Podcasts.
This article has been adapted from a presentation given by Steve Savage titled Care About Climate Change. Don’t Buy Organic and has been reproduced here with permission.
The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.


Friday, October 4, 2019

Exterminate!

(This piece was originally posted on the POP Agriculture Podcast 9/19/2019)


The Tardis (photo by  Zir, Wikimedia Commons )
The Tardis (photo by Zir, Wikimedia Commons)



The show has been running on the BBC since 1963, and part of what makes that long run possible is that the Doctor has the ability to be re-born from time to time with a different human body (although supposedly with two hearts).  There have been 13 different stars playing the part of The Doctor, and the most recent one is Jodie Whittaker (#13), the first female. I just finished binge watching that season to catch up! Other recent leads have been David Tennant (#10), Matt Smith (#11), and Peter Capaldi (#12).

Hard core Doctor Who fans call themselves “Whovians,”   The Urban dictionary puts it this way:  A few easy ways to tell if someone is a Whovian are: Turn off all the lights while repeating "Hey, who turned out the lights?", moving statues around while they aren't looking or telling them not to blink while staring at a statue, yelling exterminate at them in a freaky as hell robot voice, and watching how they react. If they start screaming they're most likely a Whovian.” 


So, what’s the “exterminate” thing about?  There are new and different “bad guys” for the Doctor to out-wit in most episodes, but throughout the years of shows, a frequent “threat to the future of humanity” has been a strange race of robotic space beings called the Daleks.  Back in the earliest, obviously low budget days of the show, the Daleks looked a lot like modified trash cans (I guess “dust bins” since it’s British) with toilet plungers for arms.  That basic, funky, Daleck look has been preserved over the history of the show as has that creepy chant that of theirs: “Exterminate! Exterminate! ….” 
Dalek image by Nelo Hotsuma from Rockwall [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]
Dalek image by Nelo Hotsuma from Rockwall [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]



So the Daleks of Dr. Who are a classic example of fictional, pop-culture aliens who are out to exterminate humans. There are also many examples of pop-culture stories of humans trying to “exterminate” some sort of alien invaders.  On today’s POPagriculture podcast we are going to talk about a real world story about how humans successfully managed to “Exterminate” some alien invaders who were threatening the grape industries of California.

Standard Intro

So, in California there are lots of farmers who tend 880,000 acres of grapes.  These include those that are specifically for drying to make raisins.  Other grapes are grown as a nice, fresh, mostly seedless snack.  Throughout the state there are also various “appellations” for wine grape production.  Together these crops bring in about 5.8 billion dollars a year to the state’s economy. These products are loved by not just Americans but by people around the world.  California has nearly ideal climatic conditions for each of these grape categories, and since they are relatively drought tolerant they are a good fit for our limited water resources.  One nice thing is that we don’t have much rain during the summer and so we don’t have to deal with some difficult fungal diseases that are a big challenge in places like Europe.  There are still certainly pests that have to be dealt with, but the grape industry has always been a leader in doing that is a sustainable way.

Lobesia:  European Grapevine Moth image by Jack Kelly Clark , University of California Extension
Lobesia: European Grapevine Moth image by Jack Kelly Clark, University of California Extension
So that’s the background, but the drama for our story began in the summer of 2009 in a famous, premium wine grape-growing region called the Napa Valley.  One of the growers there spotted a caterpillar munching away on some of his grapes.  Now there are several kinds of moths that can be pests of California grapes, particularly during their larval stage as caterpillars.  But the grower noticed that this one didn’t look like those familiar types. Being suspicious he sent a picture to a county extension agent – a kind of University employee whose job it is to support the industry with research and advice.  It turned out that was a new kind of moth to California – an alien invader!  Ok, not a space alien, but scary from the perspective of grape farmers.  It was called the European Grapevine Moth or “EVGM.” As its name implies it has been a pest in that continent for a long time.  That name doesn’t sound scary enough for our story so lets use the scientific name, Lobesia botrana.


Now the thing is that this wasn’t just another moth.  The caterpillar stage of this bug would do a lot more damage to the grape clusters than the other moth species and that would mean nice things like “frass” or insect poop on the grapes or later the raisins.  To make matters worse, the feeding opens the way for fungi that rot the grapes and that kind of infection can spread from berry to berry throughout the cluster.  This would make it a lot harder for the raisin growers to have a high quality product, it would mean a lot more food waste even all the way to the consumer level for the table grapes.  Moldy grapes definitely don’t make for high quality wine!

Rotting grape image by Andrea Lucchi , University of California
Rotting grape image by Andrea Lucchi, University of California


 

Now of course there wasn’t an extraterrestrial “Doctor” to lead this campaign, but even Dr. Who drafts a team of regular humans to help defeat the aliens.

In this case the team comprised representatives of the grower communities, university experts and government employees from the relevant state and federal departments. They held an emergency meeting and decided that they wanted to see if they could come up with a way to not only stop the spread of the pest, but if at all possible to completely eradicate it from California.  Eradicate! Doesn’t sound quite as harsh as “exterminate!” but it’s essentially the same idea.

 

 

In order to see what they were up against, sixty thousand “Sticky traps” were distributed state wide at a density of 39 per square kilometer in vineyards and 10 per square kilometer in residential areas. In the next 2010 growing season they found 100,000 moths in several California counties.  This was going to be a big challenge!  Only a comprehensive strategy with broad participation would give any hope of winning.  So the team developed a multi-prong strategy:

 

Those sticky traps continued to be used to monitor progress, but they were careful to use red colored traps because they are much less likely to accidentally trap honeybees.

 

It was important to find ways to limit further spread of the aliens. The adult moths can fly, but they don’t tend to fly too far as long as they can find the grapes they want. Quarantine rules were set up to prevent fruit, farm equipment, recycled fence or grape posts, or other things that might allow the pest to hitch-hike long distances. It turned out that the moth larvae could survive the stemming and crushing and even pressing of wine grapes – so it was critical not to move around those by-products of the winemaking process.

 

They also used an approach called “pheromone confusion” that was set up on an area-wide basis where the Lobesia had been found.  This involves putting up emitters of the specific sex hormone for this moth so that the males are getting so many “scent trails” that they rarely actually find a female to actually mate. 

 

There were lots of outreach programs to get everybody up to speed on the situation and to know their role.  This included grape growers, wineries, and fruit or raisin packers, and pest control advisors. The outreach also had to include on the order of 3,000 homeowners because they also needed to cooperate, especially if they had backyard grapes, as many did. The coordinated task force would help those owners to treat their grapes or remove their fruit so that they didn’t become a reservoir to then fan out into the commercial vineyards. Not only were there public meetings to reach all these groups, there was a Facebook page and a website at www.bugspot.org.

 

The researchers developed a sophisticated “degree day model” to predict when each of the 3-4 new generations of moths would be coming out so that insecticide sprays could be timed just right, not only to protect the crop, but to prevent the moth numbers from really blowing up as they would if not strategically checked this way.  Almost all of this spraying was done on a voluntary basis at the grower’s own cost.  In Napa and Sonoma in 2012 the growers treated more than 12,000 acres.  The organic growers also sprayed using the insecticide options that are allowed under their rules.  

 

The combination of the quarantines, the pheromone confusion and the well-timed insecticide sprays achieved what is called an “allee effect” in population biology lingo.  This is when the population size gets down to the point where there are too few of the pests in a given area to successfully mate.

 

Historical progress  towards eradication of EVGM from California. University of California.
 Historical progress towards eradication of EVGM from California. University of California.

This massive, voluntary, cooperative effort was highly coordinated across the different counties of the state and it began to pay off.  In 2011 there were 2,335 acres quarantined because of the presence of the moth.  By 2014 that number was down to 446 acres.  By 2016 the pest was officially declared to have been eradicated.



Figure 2 Victory Lap! (University of California)
Victory Lap! (University of California)

 



 

In the Dr Who shows the Daleks don’t ever seem to manage to “eliminate” humans, but in this story the humans managed to “eliminate” the alien pest. 

 

There have been some other historical examples where the humans were able to “exterminate” a new insect pest.  Another strategy that was used in some of these battles was the intentional release of sterile males of the pest species so that they so that they would out-compete the wild males trying to breed with the wild females.  This helped when the Mediterranean Fruit Fly came to California several times over the years.   

 

Another pest eradication success story had to do with a pest of cotton called the Pink Bollworm.  In that case in addition to the release of sterile males, pheromone confusion, area-wide “plow downs” and strategic sprays, the growers also had the opportunity to use lines of “Bt cotton,” genetically engineered to be resistant to the pest. 

 

Now unfortunately, it will never be possible to have this sort of victory over all the pests of grapes or any crops for that matter.  Still, when growers are only up against a familiar set of pests, they can achieve a sufficient degree of control to protect their livelihood, keep food affordable, and prevent the pest-related quality or food safety problems that would otherwise flow on down to the consumer level.