Mothra vs. San Francisco

For the past year, the state of California has been fighting an unlikely super-villain: the light brown apple moth, an Australian species that was discovered in twelve West Coast counties last spring. To judge by the official reaction, you’d think B-movie behemoth Mothra herself had decided to take up residence in the Golden State: The USDA immediately imposed strict quarantine measures, and won an emergency waiver allowing officials to ignore California’s pesticide regulations and bypass requirements for environmental impact assessments. 

Most controversially, officials decided to tackle the fluttering invaders by using airplanes to dust large areas of the West Coast - including urban San Francisco - with moth sex pheromones, hoping to convince male apple-moths that they were surrounded by lusty lepidopterans and leave them unable to track down genuinely frisky lady moths with whom to mate. Predictably, that didn’t go down well with Bay residents, who objected to being indiscriminately sprayed with insect aphrodisiacs - especially after it emerged that some of the chemicals being used can cause apathy and a loss of emotional affect in humans.

Officials at the USDA and at California’s agricultural agency initially shrugged off residents’ objections, saying that speedy action was necessary to prevent the fast-breeding moths from spreading across the country. In fact, though, it’s unclear quite how much damage an apple-moth invasion would actually do. Authorities in Hawaii, where the moth stopped off en route for California, say the critter has actually proven beneficial, targeting invasive plants like gorse and blackberry and leaving more useful crops more or less untouched.

Ironically, the official response to the apple-moth invasion may have done more economic harm than the insects themselves: Having declared the bug a quarantine insect, the USDA is now obliged to shut down any orchard where even a single caterpillar is found. With regulators in other countries following the USDA’s lead, the quarantine rules could potentially cause millions of dollars in damage to the Californian agricultural sector.

That, of course, has left Golden State officials more determined than ever to wipe away any trace of the moths. Still, they’ve been forced to modify their plan of attack. Following widespread protests and claims that the aerial dusting had caused health problems to hundreds of residents, officials have abandoned their plans to re-spray the Bay with moth pheromones. Instead, they’re going to tackle the problem by exposing moths to radiation, rendering them sterile, before releasing them from airplanes. Thousands of irate, irradiated moths fluttering across the skies of San Francisco? Now, that really is a B-movie waiting to happen...

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