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Fruit Flies Are Spreading Across U.S. Crops. The Government’s Outdated Approach Isn’t Helping

6 minute read

For two weeks in August, a crew of workers systematically confiscated every orange in Vince Bernard’s groves in Valley Center, Calif. They buried the oranges—at least $500,000 worth of fruit, Bernard says—in ditches on his neighbor’s property.

They did so by order of the U.S. government, which came accompanied by armed California Highway Patrol officers and which did not pay Bernard a penny for the crops. Bernard’s oranges were destroyed because the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) found five Mexican fruit flies on a neighbor’s property, which it considers “an imminent threat” to California’s economy. The Mexican fruit fly lays its eggs in apples, avocados, and oranges, and those eggs hatch into larvae, which tunnel through the fruit, making it unfit for human consumption. As climate change has warmed the west coast, California has been finding more fruit flies of all sorts of varieties, including Mexican, Oriental, and Mediterranean, in its traps than it did in the past.

Usually, growers near where fruit flies are found must abide by a quarantine, meaning they fruit must stay on their property though they can juice it and sell that juice. Confiscation of the kind that happened to Bernard is rare, and the incident illuminates a power imbalance between farmers and a government agency that some scientists say has utterly failed the people it is supposed to protect.

“They bully growers,” says James Carey, a professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, about CDFA and the U.S. Department. of Agriculture (USDA), which he says work hand-in-hand to respond to pest outbreaks. “They know they can walk in, declare that the Western world as we know it will be destroyed because of fruit flies, and they have the law on their side.”

Fruit flies aren’t the only problem. In a paper published in September, Carey and his colleagues investigated a 14-year-long program to eradicate the light brown moth in the U.S. that ended in December 2021. The program began, they found, with an emergency order from the USDA claiming that billions of dollars of crops were at risk. It ended, they found, with the U.S. government admitting that the light brown moth posed no threat in the first place and had caused no economic damage—except for the millions spent to get rid of the moth in the first place.

There’s no doubt that tropical fruit flies are a threat to the state’s crops. But Carey’s research shows that for decades the government has frequently taken extreme measures to get rid of them and then proclaimed their eradication—only to find the pests again in subsequent growing seasons.

In 1981, after the Mediterranean fruit fly was found in California, then-governor Jerry Brown hesitated to spray pesticides from the air to eradicate the flies because of the potential harmful effect on humans. The USDA threatened to quarantine the whole state of California if aerial spraying did not take place, and Brown relented. The federal government said that it had eradicated the pest in 1982, but by 1991, Carey had concluded that the fruit fly was never actually eradicated from California. It was a conclusion that government officials have repeatedly challenged. The CDFA said, in a statement to TIME, that it “follows internationally recognized protocols in its fruit fly projects and has never failed to eradicate a Mexican Fruit Fly infestation.”

Economically, it makes sense that the state and federal governments keep saying that they have eradicated the fruit fly. A known infestation could limit California’s ability to trade certain fruits and vegetables. The reality though, as Carey and colleagues concluded in a 2013 paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, is that the trickle of tropical fruit flies into California had turned into a “flood,” and that the state and federal policies meant to contain tropical fruit flies had largely failed.

“What they have to understand is that they’re never going to eradicate it.” Carey says, of tropical fruit flies. “They’re treating it like a cold but it’s really cancer and they need to come up with protocols that are consistent with reality.” The better way to deal with fruit flies in the U.S., he says, is to come up with a policy that will control them for the long-term, like educating farmers about where the pests are and how they spread, and how best to deal with the problem. That might mean encouraging farmers to plant fly-resistant crops, or recommending that farmers take out insurance so that they’ll be compensated if their crops are damaged. Some countries do post-harvest treatment; refrigerating fruits or irradiating them to ensure flies don’t survive.

Under California’s current protocols, when Mexican fruit flies are discovered, the state implements a treatment plan which includes releasing sterile male flies to mate with females so that they will lay infertile eggs and spraying bait treatments within 200 meters of detection sites. It can also quarantine the area where the fly was discovered, preventing farmers from taking produce off of their property.

But what happened to Bernard seems to have gone beyond the normal protocol. Carey says he has never heard of fruit being confiscated and destroyed.

Bernard says he was told that the Mexican fruit fly was discovered in traps on the property next door. He signed an agreement with CDFA to abide by a quarantine, which enabled him to juice his fruit for a period of two weeks. After two weeks, he says, he had juiced only 10% of his seven acres, and CDFA came back and said that time was up and that they were going to destroy the rest of his crop. He asked for compensation and was told he would not be compensated. A little while later, CDFA showed up with a warrant and three cars of armed officers to confiscate his crop. Bernard says they destroyed about $40,000 worth of irrigation, as well as the crops themselves.

“We appreciate the effects of quarantines on producers and try to mitigate the impacts,” a CDFA spokesman said, in an email. “While unfortunately there is not a specific program to reimburse losses, affected producers may file a claim with the state.”

Tropical fruit flies are only going to spread further in California and throughout the U.S. as there are more warm nights, fewer frost days, and more heat waves, Carey says. It’s very likely that many more farmers like Bernard are going to get caught up in the failure of decades-old approaches to pests, he says.

Meanwhile, Bernard is so shaken that he talks about leaving the U.S. entirely. “You can’t do what I do,” he says, “and be looking over your back every second and wondering whether someone is going to knock on your door and take anything they want, and you don’t have the power to do anything.”

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