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Turning the Medfly War Around

Wars are won slowly, and they are lost slowly. When the fighting is over, it is often difficult to look back and pinpoint the exact moment when the tide shifted toward victory or defeat.

And so it is with the Medfly war. Each passing week brings more bad news from the front. But what does it mean? One more fly is discovered in San Bernardino, another in Glendora. You try to picture these events--a tiny fly struggling on the glue of a cardboard trap--and they seem too small to contain great meaning.

But they are not small events. In sum, they mean we are losing the war, that a way of life may be changing in California. As always in a losing war, the Medfly generals make reassurances after each defeat. The setbacks do not matter, they say. There is light at the end of tunnel. The war will go much better next week.

These reassurances have taken on a hollow ring. If you stand back from the daily events and look at the last few weeks as a whole, the trend is obvious. During that period the Medfly has expanded into roughly 150 square miles of new territory, an area half as large as the entire infested zone last fall.

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Since March 20, new Medflies have been trapped at 20 different locations. Some were near the old zones, some in new ones. Before this year only one Medfly had ever been found in San Bernardino or Riverside counties. Since March 20, five have been trapped there.

It doesn’t take an entomologist to understand what’s happened. All winter long, the Medfly generals said the moment of truth would come in late spring when the weather turned warm and any live Medflies--if there were any--would begin to reproduce. They predicted that this moment of truth would arrive sometime in June.

The Medfly simply didn’t wait for June. A warm, early spring allowed the Medfly to mount its offensive earlier than the generals believed possible. The insect army demonstrated that it has not been stopped by eight months of spraying, that it is still out there, perhaps stronger than ever.

The worst nightmare of the Medfly war has come true, yet the generals continue denying the obvious. They insist that each new discovery is trivial, that the old methods will win the war if we just stick it out.

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What is the cost of all this? Basically, it prevents us from finding whatever solutions, partial or otherwise, are still available to us. Alternative strategies go unexplored. After all, if nothing is wrong, why fix it?

And those alternative strategies do exist. Even if--as a growing number of biologists now believe--the Medfly is firmly established in Southern California, there are methods that could help reduce the economic ruin or even turn the tide. Some are highly controversial, some not. Here’s a sample of what’s not being discussed:

Containment. If the Medfly has established permanent residency in Southern California, it’s possible that we could still prevent it from migrating into the San Joaquin Valley with preventive techniques. Mexico, for example, uses living barriers of sterile flies to contain infestations. Fertile flies move into the barrier and mate with steriles rather than other fertile flies. Thus few, if any, fertile Medflies cross the barrier.

The Cambodia strategy. Just as the U.S. tried to bomb the Viet Cong back to the Stone Age when they used Cambodia as a refuge, we could go after the Medfly with the same venom. This approach would be met with great political resistance, but keep in mind it was the strategy used against the Santa Clara infestation in 1981, and it worked. Some neighborhoods were sprayed more than 30 times--versus a max of 10 down here--and little has been heard of the Medfly since.

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Negotiate. The panic surrounding the Medfly’s march toward the San Joaquin grows out of the belief that other countries--not to mention other states--will refuse to buy our produce unless it is treated first. Is this realistic in an age when infestations can cross borders as fast as an airmail letter? We accept produce with marginal infestations of other insects, and so do other countries, so why not The Fly? The key here is the word “marginal.” We would have to prove we could keep the infestation at a very low level.

Maybe none of these would turn out to be the method of choice. Maybe there are better ideas. But until we concede the Medfly’s victories, until we start fighting the real war, we will never know what is possible, and what isn’t.


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