Not the Time to Bug Out of Medfly War

Every night the choppers rise from their landing pads and spread across the L.A. Basin. Squadrons of them, sortie after sortie, all loaded with liquid death for the Medfly. Every night for five months now they've poured malathion from the skies, trying--entomologically speaking--to bomb the Medfly back to the Stone Age.

We accept this annual war in California. It is one of the peculiarities of life here that we can wake up in the middle of the night, hear the whump whump of the choppers overhead, and know immediately what's happening. Just one more layer of sticky poison coating the neighborhood. One more night of carpet bombing.

We accept it, I think, because we understand the stakes involved. The domino theory probably was hogwash when it came to the commies, but it's not hogwash with the Medfly, or the Oriental fruit fly or the Mex fly. If any of those creatures establish a firm beachhead in the L.A. Basin, the San Joaquin Valley and all of California agriculture surely will be next.

And we accept it for another reason: This war has always ended in victory. The chopper season arrived, the malathion went down, and the Medfly died. It is a strategy that worked.

Except this year. For reasons that no one understands, the war is going badly this year. Very badly. We have escalated our response, sending more and more choppers into the night sky, expanding the war zone week after week. Now we find ourselves fighting over a huge territory, 300 square miles, and still the Medfly has not succumbed.

All this became clear last week when some of the top Medfly scientists decided to go public with their fear that the war in L.A. may be unwinnable. In a story by Times reporter Maura Dolan, a UC Berkeley entomologist expressed his view this simply: "I don't think they will be able to (eradicate)."

A scientist from out of state agreed and added this: "Once you have an established population--and I would say the evidence in L.A. is that it is pretty well established--it (eradication) is very unlikely."

These scientists are outside the program. Inside the program, as might be expected, you still get optimism of the light-at-the-end- of-the-tunnel variety. One of the inside scientists, when asked if the Medfly would be vanquished by next autumn, replied, "Possibly."

Next autumn. That's eight, nine months from now. By then the air war will be more than a year old; it will have spanned two Medfly seasons. Some neighborhoods will have been sprayed a dozen, two dozen, times. The toll on humans will be uncertain and unknown, but the toll on other creatures such as ladybugs, butterflies and honey bees will be serious. This is not a benign war, and that reality is starting to sink in.

So, with the war going badly, with the ladybugs and butterflies dying, it would be easy to heap scorn on the commanders of the spraying war. You could argue that L.A. has paid too high a price to protect the farmers of the San Joaquin. Let the farmers fight their own war, you could say. Let the dominoes fall.

You could say that, but you shouldn't. If we lose the air war in L.A., all of California will be caught in a true nightmare. Here in the Basin, a permanent infestation would mean a permanent war. Not an air war, perhaps, but a war in every back yard where there are fruit trees. Over the years more malathion would be sprayed by homeowners than is coming now from the choppers.

And a permanent infestation in the San Joaquin would mean a permanent taint on California produce. Apples, pears, peaches, plums, grapes--everything would be run through fumigators before it left the state and everything would be suspect. Make just one mistake and a nervous country like Japan would shut its doors to California farm products as it did during the 1981 Medfly war. It cost $100 million that time and it lasted only a few months.

It would be a good idea, then, to win this war. That means we have to keep the choppers in the air whether or not things look shaky. And if we win this time, there is reason to believe future battles may be easier. The government is beefing up its production of sterile fruit flies and within two years they will be available as substitutes for much of the spraying.

But, as with Vietnam, the generals of the bug war are facing an erosion of public will. It's my guess that L.A. will not tolerate aerial poisons from now till autumn. The generals don't have that much time. They must show some progress, show they can win, and show it soon. Or get ready for a hasty retreat from the onrushing insect hordes.

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