Tuesday, March 6, 2012
Invasive Beetle Potential Billion Dollar Problem
A reliable method of sterilizing bulk grain crops is clearly necessary and should plausibly be feasible. This is not the only bug we have to worry about. It should also be naturally cheap. In short it needs to intercept the grain as it passes through a spout into sterile shipping containers.
If made cheap enough, it is simple to repeat the process every step of the way every time the product is repackaged.
It cannot be microwaves because of heat and similar problems are faced with most radiation sources. It is not an easy problem but it is a clear one. I like strong magnetic waves that use the product’s motion to trigger killing reactions. It works for bacteria in fluids.
I am sure work is underway on the problem but it is certainly one that needs innovation.
Beetlemania: Invasive insect could become our billion-dollar problem
29 FEB 2012 12:47 PM
In the corner of a large, dim warehouse inside the
Edel Gaingalas swings a hammer into a piece of wood. She’s looking for larvae —
the wood, pried off a shipping crate, is riddled with holes bored by insects
who chewed their way inside looking for a home, but every one she’s found so
far is dead — killed by the mandatory fumigation at the port of origin. Before
the day is out, she’ll find a live longhorned beetle larva, and the whole
shipment will be sent back to Port of Oakland . China
Like many of the people in this warehouse, Gaingalas used to work at the airport, in the international terminal of San Francisco-Oakland (SFO). She went through people’s luggage all day. Now, as a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agricultural specialist, she mostly hunts for bugs, though she finds the occasional plant as well — like the time she found two rare orchids hidden inside a piece of furniture being imported from Asia. But she and CBP chief supervisory officer and public relations liaison Edward Low aren’t strangers to bizarre customs discoveries: Low rattles off a list of things found in
luggage with the practiced air of a man who gets asked this question a great
deal. “A cow intestine with the grass still in it,” says Low. “A human hand
stuffed with straw. Penises galore. Pick an animal — we’ve found its penis in
someone’s luggage.” SFO Airport
The greatest threat at
borders, however, doesn’t come from smuggled penises. The greatest threat
— at least in the food security sense of the word — is a nondescript brownish
insect about the size of a lentil. It’s called the Khapra beetle
(aka Trogoderma granarium). It’s the only insect that the CBP has zero
tolerance for. America
For reasons not fully understood, the Khapra beetle has been appearing at
ports in dramatically increasing numbers. In previous years, it showed up at
border crossings, in shipping containers at ports, and at international airport
terminals about 15 times a year. Six months into the 2011 that number had
already reached 100. News of the dramatically increasing Khapra beetle
interceptions began to appear in CBP press releases, running next to tales of
migrant workers caught by aerial drones and businessmen smuggling erectile
dysfunction drugs. U.S.
What’ll it do if it gets here? Eat all our food. The Oakland CPB team leads the nation in Khapra beetle interception (52 busts in 2011, with New York running a close second with 48), but it’s also just a few hours away from the Central Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world.
Unlike most beetles (but like most humans), the Khapra beetle never bothered to specialize in what it eats. At last count, the number of potential food sources it can survive on topped 75, most of them foods that we like to eat, and most of them also foods that we like to sell to other people and ship long distances, like oats, corn, wheat, soy, and beans.
When the Khapra discovers a new food source, it does not pause to think about how it might live harmoniously and sustainably in this new ecosystem. Instead it lays its eggs in everything. A single female can lay 500 eggs, according to Andrew R. Cline, senior insect biosystematist at the Plant
Pest Diagnostics Branch of the California Department of
Food & Agriculture. The insect is so small that it can hide behind a fleck
of paint on the inside of a grain silo, but eyewitness accounts of infestations
describe looking down into grain stores that seemed to be alive, they were so
thickly coated with wiggling larvae. The Khapra beetle doesn’t leave much
behind. Other insects will maybe take 30 percent of a crop, Cline says. The
Khapra will take 70 percent. Or all of it.
In 1953, the beetle was discovered to have established itself in
, at which
took millions of dollars and 13 years to remove. Among its other skills,
the Khapra beetle is able to enter something called “diapause” — a sort of
hibernation in which it stops growing and lowers its oxygen intake — making it
much more difficult to find and kill. Other, less-established colonies were
taken out in 1968 ( California New Jersey) and between
1980 and 1983 ( California, Maryland,
Michigan, New Jersey,
New York, Pennsylvania,
and ). Texas
While it is the responsibility of customs agents to actually search for and identify invasive insects, if an agricultural pest like the Khapra beetle does get loose, responsibility for getting rid of it shifts to the states. This is why
which surrounds the , has 7,000
pheremone traps laid across it as a second line of defense in case anything
manages to make it through the port and out into the world. It’s also why last
of Oakland California State
Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Anthony Cannella held a hearing in which he
announced that he certainly hoped that funding
for combating invasive species wouldn’t be cut as confronted its epic budget
By July of 2011, the USDA and Advance Passenger Information System (APIS) were seriously alarmed at the rising numbers. Some countries, like
began to outright ban imports of rice — the grain in which the beetle was most
frequently found — from countries known to have the Khapra beetle. Vietnam
But doing such a thing in the
would be complex. The
same countries that have the beetle also happen to be countries that we have
delicate diplomatic relationships with, including Afghanistan, India,
Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, as well as Senegal, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria,
Tunisia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. United States
So, the CBP altered its rules instead. Now, all rice imported from countries known to have the Khapra beetle needs to be accompanied by a certificate saying that it has been inspected and found to be beetle-free.
Have the new inspection certificates made a difference? Shipments, even certified ones, are still examined in the same way they always have been — by taking samples of the rice and sifting through them by hand. (Technology has brought us many wonders, but the ability to reliably detect a small insect in a sack of rice isn’t one of them.)
Agriculture was one of the first global industries. Crops planted far from the places where they originally evolved, but in climates similar to the ones they were from, did phenomenally well, often until they became weeds. This is why most of the world’s bananas are grown in Latin America, rather than Southeast Asia, and why most of the world’s almonds are grown in
California, not the Middle East.
Comparative advantage is rooted in plant biology.
Invasive pests are the hidden whammy folded into this scenario. When separated from all of the creatures that have evolved to eat it, a crop flourishes — like Superman shot out of Krypton and into the American Midwest. When a crop is reunited with one of its worst pests, though, it’s like Superman meets Kryptonite all over again. The Khapra beetle evolved somewhere in
South Asia, in the same region where rice was first
cultivated. USDA-APHIS estimates that 67
percent of the continental U.S. also has a climate suitable for the beetle.
Countries trade food for a variety of reasons. Some countries do it for purely economic reasons —
grows some delicious rice, in a country where wages are cheap. Other countries
trade food for diplomatic reasons — India has warehouses full of
American rice, for instance, because they promised to buy it years
ago in World Trade Organization negotiations . Japan
As more food crosses borders than ever before, biology is complicating both finance and diplomacy. The number of invasive plants, insects, and pathogens intercepted by CBP has nearly doubled in the last decade. It’s an upswing that prefigures a more complex economics of the future, and one that takes into account such questions as “How much do we stand to gain by importing this rice? How much do we stand to lose if importing this rice brings over an insect we have to spend millions of dollars to get rid of?”
As of January of this year, Sen. Canella had created his own Subcommittee on Invasive Species, and the Rice Exporters Association of
Pakistan was meeting with the USDA in to figure out just
how much of the grain is currently
being sent back. And that year-end total? It turns out just as many entered
the country since the restrictions were passed as had come before — and then
some. The final count was 217. Karachi