Asian citrus psyllid proposal worries organic farmers

Under a worst case scenario for farmers, mandatory pesticide spraying in or near organic farms would cost growers the typical 15% to 20% premium they can charge over regular produce.
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

To combat pests like the Asian citrus psyllid, exotic fruit fly and glassy-winged sharpshooter that threaten the state’s food supply, the California Department of Food and Agriculture is weighing a new plan that some organic farmers say doesn’t do enough to prevent their crops from being ruined by pesticides.

The proposal would streamline the state’s response to invasive insects by reducing paperwork and allowing the agency to quickly respond to an outbreak when it orders quarantines, sets traps or, more controversially, sprays pesticides.

Under a worst-case scenario for farmers, mandatory pesticide spraying in or near organic farms would cost growers the typical 15% to 20% premium they can charge over regular produce.


The plan “lacks adequate consideration of organic agriculture and fails to properly assess the potential impacts on California’s organic farmers,” said Kelly Damewood, policy director for California Certified Organic Farmers, a certification agency, trade association and foundation representing organic operations throughout North America, including 2,300 members in California.

In a letter submitted to the state Friday, Damewood said the proposal failed to detail the effect on organic farms if synthetic pesticides are applied.

To be certified organic, fruit, vegetables and meat must be grown or raised without synthetic pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, genetic engineering or chemical fertilizers.

The state, which released the plan in August for public comment, said it would first consider alternatives such as traps or the release of sterile insects. If an emergency does require spraying, the state would consider weather and wind patterns to reduce the risk of pesticide drift on organic farms.

Other potential controversies include risks to human health as a result of pesticide exposure and the effect of pesticides — namely controversial insecticides called neonicotinoids — on pollinating honeybees.

Steve Lyle, a spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said the proposal doesn’t give his agency new authorities. Instead, it lays out the environmental impact of all known pest threats and treatment programs for the state’s $43-billion agriculture industry in advance so that the agency doesn’t have to file emergency reports under the California Environmental Quality Act.


“We have the authority to take the necessary steps to protect our food supply and we’ve had it for years,” Lyle said.

The report comes amid lingering anxiety within California’s $2-billion citrus industry over huanglongbing, also known as citrus greening. The disease, which leaves fruit bitter and misshapen, has already inflicted $1.3 billion worth of damage on Florida’s citrus industry.

There is no known cure for the disease, which is being spread by tiny insects called the Asian citrus psyllid. Although the disease hasn’t taken root in California, the invasive psyllids appear to be showing up in more places in the Golden State. Quarantines restricting the movement of citrus trees have been issued in all or some of 14 counties, including Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura.

Agricultural agencies in Florida and California have tried to contain the pest by using a combination of insecticides and predator insects — in this case, Pakistani “vampire” wasps that attack the psyllids by sucking out their blood.

Tim Schubert, a senior plant pathologist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said the wasps are preferable over spraying because they don’t harm organic growers and don’t raise as much public alarm. Huanglongbing is also so advanced in Florida that spraying would be impractical, he added.

“That’s a delicate thing to do,” Schubert said of mandatory spraying. “We’ve had some fruit fly spraying which was met with considerable public outcry. We dread the day we might have to resort to that.”