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Pesticide Studies All Over the Lot

The cornerstone of the state’s anti-Medfly program is the use of sterile flies, which apparently help breed the crop-destroying pest out of existence. But the experts admit they don’t understand precisely why and how Medflies breed the way they do. Certainly, to attack a problem effectively, the problem must be fully defined and understood. A pending assembly bill, AB 4161, would encourage the state to conduct better research to shed more light on the Medfly and other agricultural pests that threaten the state’s No. 1 industry. Even more important, such research could, in the long term, provide alternatives to the use of pesticides as the weapon of choice to battle food pests.

The bill, by Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), would establish the University of California as a clearinghouse for pest-research information, with computerized data banks and information from around the world. As it is now, the state, private universities, the agricultural industry and the federal government may be conducting overlapping projects, without one knowing what the other is doing. Research being done in Florida on a minor crop pest might be useful information in knocking down the new super pest of tomorrow in California. And given this state’s worldwide popularity as a vacation spot and new home to millions each year, it is only a matter of when, not if, an infestation of a new bug comes.

The proposed Center for Pest Research would focus on investigating effective methods in pest prevention, control and eradication, with a decided lean toward what the measure calls “ecologically sound” techniques. A gubernatorial task force in 1982 concluded that if such a center had been established, the 1981 Santa Clara Medfly infestation likely would have been eradicated more quickly and at less cost.

Some critics of the bill say that internal restructuring within UC--which is the state’s major pest institute--could automatically mean better coordination of research and information. And some within UC and the state Department of Food and Agriculture want more control of setting the research priorities.

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The bill already has undergone revisions to address UC and agricultural concerns and may undergo more in the future. But the important point of AB 4161 is not to resolve jurisdictional squabbles or to provide cure-all legislation. It is a way for state legislators to acknowledge that California voters want to de-emphasize the use of pesticides and want to know what the state is doing to accomplish that. Without coordinated long-term research, the state invariably will be tied to the quick-fix application of insect poisons--and that won’t win any points with humans, either.


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