If you own strawberry guava trees (waiawi), then you can get compensation for damage caused by the biocontrol insect the government wants to release to attack everyone’s strawberry guava. These ornamental fruit trees could be worth thousands of dollars each! How many strawberry guava trees do you own?
County Council Passes Resolution Calling For a Ban on Biocontrol
On Wednesday, August 19th, the County Council voted 6-3 in favor of resolution 80-09, calling for a ban on biocontrol against relatives of the o’hia. This is the first, ever, ban on biocontrol in Hawaii history. Councilmembers Ford, Greenwell, Yagong, Naeole, Hoffmann, and Onishi supported the ban. The opposing votes came from Ikeda, Yoshimoto, and Enriques.
The resolution is non-binding, but it gives a clear message to the state and feds from the people. The light has been turned on, and we are watching.
The Forest Service says the new EA is nowhere in sight. Stay tuned! We won this battle, but the war may not be over.
Open Letter Health Alert!
Re: Potential human health impacts from exposure to biocontrol scale insect infestations
Aloha Dr. Fukino:
I am a medical anthropologist and director of the Institute for the Study of Culturogenic Disease, located on the Big Island.
As you know, Hawaii leads the nation in childhood asthma and respiratory disease. We are very concerned this may get worse from exposure to insects that will be infesting our island as part of a biocontrol experiment, and ask your attention to this matter.
The US Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station’s is planning to release a scale insect from Brazil, Tectococcus ovatus, as a biological control for strawberry guava. We believe this insect poses potential threats to the health of residents and visitors which have not been adequately addressed by the Forest Service.
To our knowledge, research has never been done on the potential allergenicity or other health impacts of human exposure to Tectococcus ovatus – its eggs, waxy filament, chitinous material, crawling nymphs, winged males, and females. Chitin is known to cause pulmonary inflammation and is highly allergenic. Inhalation of these tiny insects and their eggs and nymphs may induce severe allergic response.
Given the high rates of asthma in Hawaii and the negative impact of volcanic emissions on pulmonary health, this exposure to T. ovatus may be even more problematic.
This Brazilian scale insect has never before been used for biocontrol, nor has it been introduced into any alien environment, so this release is unprecedented and completely experimental. Little was known about this insect prior to research into its use as a biocontrol agent for strawberry guava, and it is relatively rare in Brazil.
Expected population densities in Hawaii could be very large, since there are no natural predators of this insect in Hawaii to limit its numbers, and there will be hundreds of thousands of acres of infested strawberry guava trees.
Since its primary mode of travel is with the wind, this proposed experimental infestation could create dangerous quantities and densities of airborne Tectococcus ovatus eggs, nymphs, and flying males to which people will be exposed.
Many residents live near strawberry guava and will contact and inhale these eggs, nymphs, and flying males. The nymphs and males, like tiny mites, will crawl over the skin and get into eyes, ears, mouths, noses, hair and clothes. Fruit will also have galls containing adult females, as well as having nymphs crawling on them and eggs adhering to them, all of which will be unintentionally eaten.
However, legitimate concerns over potential health impacts from this insect infestation have been brushed aside as insignificant by the Forest Service, without the benefit of evidence or necessary research.
The following quoted statements are the extent that this issue has been addressed, from the “Petition for field release of Tectococcus ovatus (Homoptera: Eriococcidae) for classical biological control of strawberry guava, Psidium cattleianum Sabine (Myrtaceae), in Hawaii”, May 10, 2005, by Tracy Johnson of the Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry, US Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station.
“Human Impacts “Direct contact between humans and T. ovatus is likely to (be) minimal because the insects are enclosed within leaf galls most of their lives.”
This statement is misleading, since it does not consider the direct contact with eggs and nymphs, or with flying males.
“Humans near infested P. cattleianum (strawberry guava) may experience chance contact with the eggs, crawlers and waxy filaments which emerge from female galls, but are unlikely to be aware of them because of their small size.”
This statement is not based on any scientific evidence. Many people are aware of small arthropods crawling on their skin, in their eyes, and into their ears, such as mites, tiny ants, and other small crawling insects. People living or hiking near dense areas of strawberry guava may be exposed to thousands of eggs and nymphs at one time.
“Allergenicity of substances generated by homopterous insects is rare. It appears very unlikely that T. ovatus poses any risk to human health.”
As far as we know, there has never been a study of the potential allergenicity of Tectococcus ovatus – its tiny eggs, waxy filament, chitinous material, crawling nymphs, winged males, and females. Given the expected density of scale infestation and numbers of insects and insect parts that will be airborne, if this scale does prove allergenic, it could be devastating to human health.
“Simultaneous emergence and dispersal of large numbers of male T. ovatus could possibly cause occasional nuisance to humans if the winged males are attracted to lights. However, males are tiny (2 mm long) and appear to be weak fliers.”
If these flying males are attracted to light, they could become a major nuisance, and increase human exposure to and contact with these insects. This statement also shows how little is known about this insect.
We believe the following questions should be answered before this biocontrol experiment is allowed:
- How will inhaling airborne T. ovatus eggs, crawling nymphs and flying males affect asthmatics?
- What other health problems might be caused, both acutely and chronically, by exposure to this insect, its eggs, nymphs, and chitin?
- I am extremely concerned about potential allergic sensitization. Is the scale insect or any of its parts or in any of its stages of life an allergen?
- How many eggs, nymphs, and male insects floating and blowing in the wind will people be exposed to, especially in heavily infested strawberry guava areas?
- Will people be annoyed by these insect eggs, crawling nymphs, and flying males?
- Eggs, crawling nymphs, and scales will be on the strawberry guava fruit of infested trees. What will be the health impacts of ingesting these?
- Will there be eye, ear, nose, or throat irritation as a result of exposure?
- Will people itch and scratch themselves in response to contact, creating rashes and potentially harmful skin infections?
- To what degree is consumption of strawberry guava fruit beneficial for public health, given its high fiber, vitamin, mineral, and anti-oxidant content, and its current widespread availability, and to what degree might this consumption fall as a result of this infestation, adversely affecting public health?
On behalf of thousands of residents concerned about this infestation of our environment and its potential health impacts, we would appreciate your attention to this issue and a prompt response to the above questions.
Sydney Ross Singer
BILLS BEFORE THE HAWAII STATE LEGISLATURE
Requesting a moratorium on the release of biological control agents for the environmental management of plant species that also serve as food resources.
FOOD FIRST: Hawai’i legislature to consider moratorium on biocontrol against food resources
(Hilo, Hawai’i) Big Island Senator Takamine and Representative Nakashima have submitted concurrent resolutions, SR 108 and HR 218, calling for a moratorium on the release of biological control agents against food resources in order to help people feed their families during these hard economic times.
The resolutions also encourage the use of alternative methods of weed control that, “do not interfere with the ability of residents to grow, gather, and enjoy these natural food resources.”
These resolutions have stemmed, in part, from the controversy over the proposed release of a Brazilian scale insect, Tectococcus ovatus, for the control of strawberry guava. The scale insect is expected to stop fruit production and will spread with the wind, infesting strawberry guava on private and public lands where its nutritious fruit is desired. Given the current economic crisis, more people are turning to wild foods to support themselves and their families.
Despite calls by Governor Lingle for food self-sufficiency and sustainability, the use of wild foods has been ignored as a resource and is being undermined by the use of biocontrol. These resolutions are an attempt to put food first, while encouraging alternative weed management methods that stay in the forests, and do not become invasive pests of food plants everywhere.
The problem is that biocontrol agents know no boundaries. Once released, an insect, fungus, or other biocontrol agent spreads beyond the forest where it is released, and attacks its target everywhere, depriving everyone of the beneficial uses of these food resources on private and public lands.
Thousands of Big Island residents have joined the Good Shepherd Foundation’s Save the Guava Campaign, opposing the biocontrol of strawberry guava.
FREE, WILD FOOD UNDER ATTACK
The use and enjoyment of the strawberry guava is being threatened by the federal and state departments of agriculture, which propose releasing an alien insect pest to control the spread of this plant in native forests. The scale insect they want to release is from Brazil, and it attacks the leaves of the plant, making them ugly with bubbly, gall-infested growths and eliminating the fruit production.
The strawberry guava provides free food, free wood and has been a cherished part of the Hawaiian culture and lifestyle for nearly 200 years. Stopping the spread of these valued plants by releasing an insect pest will negatively affect everyone in the state, depriving everyone, especially low-income people and native Hawaiians, of an important and nutritious food and wood resource. It also will destroy the beauty of our land, turning these ornamental, green trees that line our roadways, parks and backyards into gall infested, sick looking, spindly eyesores.
Why is the government, which is supposed to protect us from invasive insect pests, wanting to introduce an alien insect pest to attack the strawberry guava? The Hawaii Department of Agriculture actually lists the strawberry guava as an ornamental and fruit-producing plant, not as a weed. The HDOA should be protecting our agricultural resources, not releasing agricultural pests.
We can all agree that the strawberry guava can become a weed in some native forest areas. We want to save the native forests, but we need a method that is specific to the areas needing strawberry guava weeding. It should not affect people statewide who cultivate these plants and appreciate them in the wild.
What about Hawaii’s fragile ecosystems? Once this alien insect is released, its population will explode, with none of its competitors or parasites or predators that would control its growth as in its native Brazil. There will be no turning back!
How will eliminating the fruit of the strawberry guava affect wildlife, which has come to rely on this fruit for nearly 200 years? What will happen to the food chain and the insects, birds and mammals that rely on this food? What will happen to the endangered, native birds that rely on insects that feed on these fruits?
We believe that this insect pest could start attacking other important plants besides the strawberry guava. Even the researchers proposing this plan admit the possibility that the released insect could attack non-target species, including related native species such as the o’hia, as well as other fruit trees. The people remember the mongoose and other failed plans that changed Hawaii for the worse, and realize that no scientist can guarantee that this insect, once released, will not become a major threat to our environment and agriculture.
The fact is, the only way to weed the forests of unwanted guava is to remove them by hand. And that is the case with or without the alien insect pest, which only makes the guavas sick and fruitless. They will still need mechanical removal.
This is a time of food shortages and high food prices, at a time when Hawaii is trying to find ways of being food self-sufficient. It is a bad time to attack a food resource simply because it grows so well here. Let’s use this resource. It needs to be managed, not destroyed.