D.C.’s Terrorism Obsession Allowed Foreign Pests to Invade U.S.

‘Pest explosion’ threatened the nation’s food supply.
U.S. agricultural inspector Mike Ollman questions a motorist entering the United States at the U.S.-Mexico border crossing on December 10, 2010 at Nogales, Arizona. (Photo: Getty Images)
Oct 11, 2011
Exec. Prod. of Franchises & Series. He previously reported for HuffPost, L.A. Daily Journal, and Biloxi Sun-Herald.

Here’s some cheery news from the Associated Press: Washington was so focused on the Global War on Terror in the years following 9/11 that dozens of invasive species, insects, and plant diseases slipped across our borders, with devastating consequences for U.S. farmers, consumers’wallets, and our environment. 

Using the Freedom of Information Act, the AP combed through border inspection reports from 2001 through 2010 and found that the number of bugs that threaten U.S. food crops spiked over the period. The reason? Government officials reassigned the frontline agricultural specialists assigned to stopping these pests at the border to anti-terror duties.

And now Homeland Security officials are acknowledging “mistakes”and scrambling to get the pest hunters back to the nation’s borders. 

But how extensive was the damage? According to the AP, these are among the critters that snuck onto American soil:

  • No fewer than 19 Mediterranean fruit fly infestations took hold in California, and the European grapevine moth triggered spraying and quarantines across wine country.
  • The Asian citrus psyllid, which can carry a disease that has decimated Florida orange groves, crossed the border from Mexico, threatening California's $1.8 billion citrus industry.

  • New Zealand’s light brown apple moth also emerged in California, prompting the government in 2008 to bombard the Monterey Bay area with 1,600 pounds of pesticides. The spraying drew complaints that it caused respiratory problems and killed birds. Officials spent $110 million to eradicate the moth, but it didn’t work.
  • The sweet orange scab, a fungal disease that infects citrus, appeared in Florida, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, which all imposed quarantines.

  • Chili thrips, rice cutworms and the plant disease gladiolus rust also got into Florida, which saw a 27 percent increase in new pests and pathogens between 2003 and 2007.
  • The erythrina gall wasp decimated Hawaii’s wiliwili trees, which bear seeds used to make leis.

  • Forests from Minnesota to the Northeast were also affected by beetles such as the emerald ash borer, many of which arrived in Chinese shipping pallets because regulations weren’t enforced.

One researcher pegs the total damage done by invasive species in the U.S. at $120 billion per year. Now, no one is discounting the importance of protecting the nation against terrorists. But we’re kind of wondering what an agricultural inspector knows about tracking terrorists...

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