Soula Culver, March 2001      
You will soon be hearing a lot of media reports about an "unprecedented threat to California agriculture": the Glassy-winged Sharpshooter (GWSS). This is a 1/2-inch insect that poses no threat to human or animal health. As it can spread a grapevine disease, it may have some temporary impact on the California wine industry. Because this powerful industry is in a panic about the sharpshooter, California and the Federal government have declared an official State of Emergency. (Al Gore made the announcement at a public event in August of 2000, making proclamations about having to save the wine industry.)

A $750,000 public relations contract has been signed to publicize this story. Why should you care? Because a multi-million dollar State program has been set into motion, and mandatory toxic pesticides are being used on homes where the sharpshooter is found. The grounds of 2600 homes have already been sprayed in the first year of this six-year program, some as many as four times. 200 homes were sprayed in Contra Costa County last November, and now constitute "hot spots" where the sharpshooter is expected to be found again and spraying repeated.

I have contacted seven biologists recently about this matter. The story from those not benefiting from the program seems to be that, as of this year, natural predators have taken care of the excess GWSS population in Southern California, where the GWSS had been rampant a couple of years ago.

Ironically, even those that are planning to do the spraying acknowledge that the bug is here to stay and that pesticides will not eradicate it. The real problem is that a multi-million dollar "money train" has been set into motion. $36 million in State and Federal emergency funds were generated in the first year, 2000, with equal or greater amounts expected to be obtained for each consecutive year. With this kind of motivating power, the train will keep on rolling. This money could be spent on non-toxic methods of "abatement". This approach requires some creative thinking and will be more labor intensive than what Agricultural Departments are used to, which is the rote procedure of dousing areas in poisons. The fact that the State refuses to do a quarantine because that would "harm commerce" but sees no problem with massive pesticide use is outrageous.

In any case, the GWSS is just the "pest of the month": a problem which will go away by itself. It probably will go away faster if the beneficial insects that naturally keep it in check are not killed off by pesticides. Santa Barbara County's Agricultural Commissioner, Bill Gillette, is NOT planning to use pesticides, and he says that he is getting 95% control just with natural methods, whereas Fresno County is only getting 75% control with pesticides, "So why should I use pesticides?"

Stepping back to look at the bigger picture, this issue can be seen as part of the current trend to declare every little thing a state of emergency so that measures to protect health and the environment are nullified and huge profits can be made (in this case by UC, CDFA, and the chemical industry, with wine and nursery industries getting a bailout on some short-term problems).

As the Pest Management Program Coordinator of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, Debbie Rafael, told me recently, "The world has changed since the days of the medfly sprayings." We know a lot more about the dangers of pesticides now. We need to make our voices heard. Tell government officials that this issue must be addressed using the non-toxic methods that are available. Let's make this "emergency" the start of something positive: a long-overdue reversal of the trend to use more and more toxic substances.

Please keep in mind that this story is too complicated to be related in a short article. Additionally, the issue of the devastation to California's organic farming deserves separate treatment. For more details and action information, please explore this website.