— The Asian citrus psyllid, which can carry a disease that has decimated Florida orange groves, crossed the border from Mexico, threatening California’s $1.8 billion citrus industry.
— New Zealand’s light brown apple moth also emerged in California, prompting the government in 2008 to bombard the Monterey Bay area with 1,600 pounds of pesticides. The spraying drew complaints that it caused respiratory problems and killed birds. Officials spent $110 million to eradicate the moth, but it didn’t work.
— The sweet orange scab, a fungal disease that infects citrus, appeared in Florida, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, which all imposed quarantines.
— Chili thrips, rice cutworms and the plant disease gladiolus rust also got into Florida, which saw a 27 percent increase in new pests and pathogens between 2003 and 2007.
— The erythrina gall wasp decimated Hawaii’s wiliwili trees, which bear seeds used to make leis.
— Forests from Minnesota to the Northeast were also affected by beetles such as the emerald ash borer, many of which arrived in Chinese shipping pallets because regulations weren’t enforced.
In all, the number of pest cases intercepted at U.S. ports of entry fell from more than 81,200 in 2002 to fewer than 58,500 in 2006, before creeping back up in 2007, when the farm industry and members of Congress began complaining.
Once the pests get established, costs can quickly spiral out of control. The most widely quoted economic analysis, conducted in 2004 by Cornell University, puts the total annual cost of all invasive species in the U.S. at $120 billion. Much of that burden is borne by consumers in the form of higher food costs and by taxpayers who pay for government eradication programs.
For instance, if the destructive infection known as citrus canker were to become established in California, which produces most of the nation’s fresh oranges, consumers would pay up to $130 million more a year for the fruit, according to an ongoing study by scientists at the University of California at Davis.
“It’s all about early detection, and it wasn’t their priority at the time,” said A.G. Kawamura, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture from 2003 through 2010, who was sharply criticized for the spraying in Monterey Bay.
And it’s not just humans who pay the cost. Wildlife and beneficial insects die when fields are sprayed.
The problems began when the Homeland Security Department absorbed inspectors who worked for the Department of Agriculture. The move put plant and insect scientists alongside gun-toting agents from Customs and Border Protection and resulted in a bitter culture clash.
Agriculture supervisors were replaced in the chain of command by officials unfamiliar with crop science. Hundreds of inspectors resigned, retired or transferred to other agencies. Some of the inspectors who remained on the job lost their offices and desks and were forced to work out of the trunks of their cars.
It took authorities years “to learn there’s an important mission there,” said Joe Cavey, head of pest identification for a USDA inspection service. “Yeah, maybe a radioactive bomb is more important, but you have to do both things.”
At the time of the merger, at least 339 of 1,800 inspector positions were vacant. By 2008, vacancies had increased to 500, or more than a quarter of the original workforce.