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Ag at Large: Leaky border admits tiny crop invaders

By Don Curlee, for The Porterville Recorder

Since plugging holes in a leaky California-Mexico border to prevent human entry is apparently so difficult farmers in the Golden State are wondering if adequate measures can ever be taken to discourage the admission of thousands of sometimes microscopic invasive pest and disease species.

Threats posed by the insect and disease organisms are recognized well enough by plant biologists to cause the issue to be assigned to the Department of Homeland Security. Formerly it was only the concern of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The heightened risk to the nation's food supply punctuated by 9-11 has focused attention anew on the dangers of undetected entry to California by voracious insect pests and debilitating plant and animal diseases.

Stepped-up trade in many California agricultural products between growers here and in Mexico and Canada and beyond as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement(NAFTA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement(CAFTA) has emphasized the need for more serious border protection.

Detection and rejection of invasive species was high on the agenda in August when members of the House and Senate Agricultural Committees met with California agricultural representatives at a public meeting in Lodi. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns heard a few comments about tightening the border in all aspects when he was in Fresno for a listening session with farmers and their representatives a week earlier.

Unlike many issues affecting agriculture this one received much wider attention in the non-farm population when Parade magazine looked into the matter for an article reaching 34 million readers earlier this summer.

In the article titled "Can They Be Stopped?" the author reported that 7,000 invasive species are already in the country "out-competing or eating their native cousins, killing crops and forests, upsetting nature's delicate balance."

Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers in Newport Beach, has written: "Our ability to effectively address invasive pest issues is critical to the sustainability and economic vitality of the specialty crop industry."

A point man in the effort by California agriculture to keep attention fixed on the need for protection and detection is Joel Nelson, president of California Citrus Mutual in Exeter. He cites a 2004 study that showed interception of the species and both initial and secondary inspections have been diminished.

"More product coming in and less efficiency in inspection amounts to a recipe for disaster," he said.

In Sacramento a nine-mile trapping and surveillance area has been set up around the site where two Asian longhorn beetles were discovered recently. They typify the invasive species that worry so many in California agriculture.

While farmers whose trees, vines, animals or even soils are at risk are the obvious losers when inspection and detection methods are lax, those who enjoy the food, fiber, floral and fish products produced by California farmers are potentially the ultimate losers.

It can be defined as a federal issue, but until the feds get the matter in hand farmers in California and their organizations are going to keep suggesting ways to plug even the tiniest holes in a leaky border.

Don Curlee is an agriculture consultant based in the Valley. His column appears weekly in The Recorder

This story was published in The Porterville Recorder on September 26, 2005