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Africa faces plague of armyworms: Are we next?

By Dennis T. Avery
web posted February 16, 2009

ArmywormsA vast plague of armyworms has just destroyed the crops of some 50,000 villagers in Liberia. Observers say the billions of inch-and-a-half-long worms can eat a cornfield down to the stalk nubs in a few hours—and then start snacking on the next field. Soon, the adult moths fly off to start new invasions. Without an aerial spraying campaign, the armyworms may spread their famine and crop devastation to neighboring countries as well.

Could this crop devastation spread to Europe and North America?  In fact, it could. The main thing standing in the way of an armyworm invasion is our crop protection chemicals—pesticides that are lethal to bugs and fungi, but not to humans.

Unfortunately, it's been so long since Americans were threatened with plagues of insects that we've forgotten to fear them. If the armyworms suddenly infested California or Ontario, would the public react with a flood of phone calls threatening lawsuits against pesticide spraying?  We can't even imagine a crop loss that would cause famine on the Liberian scale, but only because most of our farmers kill the insects in their fields before they reach the critical mass of the armyworms. Or our plant breeders come up with pest-resistant seed varieties.

Thanks to science and technology, we no longer have to dust our crops with lead and arsenic. That vile blue powder was the standard pest control method when I was growing up on a Michigan farm. Lead and arsenic are immediately toxic to virtually every living thing, so "wash your food thoroughly" really meant "do it or risk death"!

As the armyworms ravage the Third World, the European Union is proposing to ban up to 85 percent of the active ingredients it has currently approved for pest control. Not because they are proven dangerous, but on the "precautionary principle" that no pesticide should ever be used until we can prove it will never damage the environment.  

Ontario, Canada, has banned lawn pesticides after a campaign by the Ontario College of Family Physicians claiming that the pesticides are "linked" to learning disabilities, birth defects and miscarriages—but the only "linkage" is statistical speculation.  

Oakland, California, in 1991, let 25 people burn to death rather than use herbicides to control the fire-prone alien plant species on its steep hillsides. Oakland has tried every non-chemical solution from shovels to goat-grazing to control the alien plants without success. The chemophobes are now touting "a hot foam system employing corn and coconut" —or even flaming machines, which themselves present an awful risk on Oakland's fire-prone hillsides.

Organic food has enjoyed massive popularity in recent decades because it supposedly carries less risk to our health. Most people don't even realize that organic farmers are allowed to use pesticides, some of them very harsh and dangerous. Copper sulfate, for example, is not natural and is toxic to just about every living thing.

So far, none of the pesticide bans—or eating organic foods—has made any documented difference in anybody's health. More than 75 years of testing—much of it done by the organic movement's own scientists—have failed to turn up any consistent health or safety advantages for organic food.

Colin Ruscoe of the British Crop Production Council warns that if the EU carries through its threat to ban most pesticides, farm yields will be cut by half. That's consistent with the organic experience—organic crop yields are only about half as high as conventional farmers' harvests, primarily because they refuse to use nitrogen fertilizer, and secondarily because they suffer more pest losses.

How much wildlife should we displace to be rid of safety-tested pesticides that protect our families' health and the global wildlife habitat? ESR

Dennis T. Avery is an environmental economist, and a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.  He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. He is co-author, with S. Fred Singer, of Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Hundred Years, Readers may write him at PO Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421 or email to cgfi@hughes.net.

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