Spray! BAM! Thank you, Uncle Sam!
The Federal government forces California to spray to eradicate a moth and causes health and environmental problems
February 1, 2008
Fred Foldvary, Ph.D.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) is planning to spray chemicals in the San Francisco Bay Area in an attempt to eliminate Epiphyas postvittana, the Light Brown Apple Month (LBAM). This department has the authority to declare an emergency and then spray the area, without having to get permission from the voters, and regardless of public opposition. The spraying will be paid for by Uncle Sam. The CDFA has obtained $75 million from the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for the spraying.

Over a dozen organizations, such as the California Alliance to Stop the Spraying, oppose the program, and some city councils have also voiced opposition. The CDFA does pay attention to the view of the public, so it has allocated $500,000 to pay a public relations firm to spread propaganda among the public on the benefits of the spraying.

The light brown apple moth has lived in Hawaii for over a hundred years without being a significant pest. But in California, some experts think that LBAM can damage a wide range of plants, including redwoods, oaks and other trees, including those in urban areas, even though there is no evidence yet that the moths have caused significant crop damage in California. LBAM is considered to be a pest of apples and other fruits, although in Hawaii, some think that LBAM helps control weeds. Growers fear that other states and countries could refuse to accept California produce.

The USDA placed a quarantine on the export of many plant materials from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland after the LBAM was discovered in California in 2007. This requires plant matter to be inspected prior to being shipped. The Canadian authorities are also concerned hat the moths could enter Canada.

LBAM is native to Australia, and is now living in New Zealand and the British Isles. It is not easy for a non-expert to identify LBAM, since there are many native moths in the Tortricidae family that look like it.

The CheckMate product is supposed to disrupt moth mating using pheromones, a scent emitted by female moths to attract the males. The synthetic scent is supposed to mimic the real ones and interrupt moth reproduction. The owner of the product, perhaps by sheer coincidence, has contributed to political campaigns, including $144,000 to the governor in his most recent political campaign, and money to members of the state assembly’s agricultural committee.

Much of the opposition is due to the harm the spraying can do to human health. Particle pollution in general is inhaled and has caused serious illness, including respiratory and cardiovascular problems. Spraying has already been conducted in Santa Cruz and Monterrey counties, and there have been several hundred complaints of skin rashes, diarrhea, and other maladies. This was the first time that the spray, CheckMate, was applied over an urban area. The USDA has sought to dismiss a lawsuit to stop the Checkmate spray in those counties. The government of California is only now beginning an environmental impact report. It will conduct this research while it is spraying, so if bad effects are discovered, it will be too late.

An alternative to the spraying is the use of scented twist ties to spread the chemicals, as has been done in some places. The government claims that it would be too costly to replace the spraying with twist ties, but it would not need to have a large labor cost to the state if it could organize volunteers to apply these.

The free-market approach to the LBAM issue would be for each property owner to protect its own area. The issue would then be to handle the external effects. If one’s neighbors did not eradicate the moths, they could be sued for damages. Likewise, if a property owner’s spray entered the neighboring areas, the owner could be sued for damages.

Unfortunately, when the state does the spraying and it causes health and environmental problems, it is difficult to sue for damages, since government authorities are immune from prosecution in the conduct of their official tasks. A key difference between a true free market and imposed government is that in the market, interactions must be voluntary, whereas the state may inflict harm and use force, without any compensation.

At least if the funds for this program came from the state, Californians would have more power to influence the program. But since the money comes from the federal government, residents of the S.F. Bay Area must inhale the consequences and then say, “thank you, master, for being so good to us.”

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Fred Foldvary, Ph.D.

FRED E. FOLDVARY, Ph.D., is an economist and has been writing weekly editorials for Progress.org since 1997. Foldvary's commentaries are well respected for their currency, sound logic, wit, and consistent devotion to human freedom. He received his B.A. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. He has taught economics at Virginia Tech, John F. Kennedy University, Santa Clara University, and currently teaches at San Jose State University.

Foldvary is the author of The Soul of LibertyPublic Goods and Private Communities, and Dictionary of Free Market Economics. He edited and contributed to Beyond Neoclassical Economics and, with Dan Klein, The Half-Life of Policy Rationales. Foldvary's areas of research include public finance, governance, ethical philosophy, and land economics.

Foldvary is notably known for going on record in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology in 1997 to predict the exact timing of the 2008 economic depression—eleven years before the event occurred. He was able to do so due to his extensive knowledge of the real-estate cycle.