Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Pest invaders causing billions in damage

WASHINGTON, DC - A potential threat may be lurking in the billions of tons of cargo that come into the nation every year. Customs and Border Protection inspectors are on the front lines. What they're looking for may be smaller than the naked eye can see but can cause extensive damage.

FOX5 went along with agricultural specialists at the Port of Baltimore. They're on the hunt every day, searching with flashlights, splitting wood, and sifting through rice. "I'll be searching underneath the plastic," one of the inspectors tells us.

They're not looking for drugs; they're looking for bugs capable of widespread devastation. "We find something usually every day," said David Ing, an agriculture specialist supervisor with Customs and Border Protection, although most are not dangerous. It's his job to prevent invasive pests from getting into the country. "Most people might not think of it until it becomes an outbreak," Ing said.

They can only search a small fraction of the containers that come in. These insects which can hitchhike in cargo are more dangerous than you think. Every year invasive species cause up to $100 billion in damage in the United States, more than Hurricane Katrina. "We're looking for high risk cargo that comes into the country," said Ricardo Scheller, Baltimore Port Director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

This year the agency intercepted six insects never seen before in Baltimore, including a dangerous beetle last week discovered for the first time anywhere in the country. They can be tiny and hard to spot, some of them smaller than a grain of rice. "You could have crops that are destroyed in the United States, you could have an interception of a pest or a plant product that, you know, could make people sick," Scheller said.

Just look at what the brown marmorated stink bug has done. It's a native of China, first spotted in Pennsylvania nearly 15-years ago. The stink bug spread along the east coast, finding refuge in homes and trees during the winter and then emerging in late summer to feast on crops. Maryland farmer Bob Black's Catoctin Mountain Orchard was hit hard this year. "You can see when the stink bugs will have already sucked some of the juice out of the cells," he points out as workers harvest his apple crop.
On close examination, the darkened indentations are clearly visible. A large percentage have the markings of a stink bug bite. These cannot be sold in stores, where they would fetch the highest price.
They are damaged goods. He'll have to sell these apples for juice. "There's more damage than what I anticipated," he said surveying the bins. He'll get only have the price he would for an apple that was bite free and sold in stores.

The problem with invasive pests like this is there are no natural predators here. So farmers have to spray to keep the crop damage down, that increases their costs, a cost which is passed onto you in the food you buy. The cost of this year's crop damage he says is "a million dollar question." He's sorting through now, trying to decide whether he'll need to file an insurance claim.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Inspection Service or APHIS for short helps identify suspicious bugs. Anything found at the ports or airports comes here. The danger isn't just to crops. Giant African snails now multiplying in Florida can spread deadly diseases. "One of the biggest problems we've found is that they're big and they eat a lot but they also carry parasites. They're bad for humans. I believe you can die from the parasites," said Jim Young, an entomologist with APHIS.

On the East Coast, APHIS is fighting the emerald ash borer and Asian long horned beetle which are wiping out trees en masse. "It can happen pretty fast. That's why it's important that we find these quickly so we can put them down before they get too out of hand," said Paul Ijams, the APHIS state plant health director.

Once an invasive pest gets into the country, it can cost billions of dollars to eradicate if it's even possible. The USDA is now experimenting with a type of wasp that may prey on the stink bugs, but there are good species of stink bugs that the wasp may wipe out too.
At Bob Black's farm, the USDA set up a line of traps at the edge of his fields trying to find a way to stop them. "We still don't know rhyme or reason of why they're feeding, when, where," Black said with frustration.

Meanwhile back at the port, one of the inspections resulted in a discovery. It's a beetle in a tile shipment from Italy. "We did find one hitchhiker, but he may be dead," the agriculture specialist said. He put the bug into a glass vial, covered it and waited to see if perhaps it came back to life in the warmth but it didn't. It turned out to be harmless and the shipment can go out. Cargo found with invasive pests are fumigated or sent back. It's the first line of defense in what is now a multi-billion dollar bug battle.

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