Whistleblower Demoted After Raising Agriculture Pest Concerns

Citrus_canker_on_fruitCitrus canker on fruitThe U.S. fixation on protecting the country from terrorist attacks since 9/11 has caused border protection officials to overlook incoming insects and plant diseases that threaten our food supply, according to an Associated Press report. But even when a whistleblower tried to draw attention to one of the pest problems -- which together cost billions of dollars in crop damage and eradication efforts -- the disclosure was dismissed as irrelevant to the anti-terror agenda.

From the AP:

While working at an international mail center outside San Francisco, the inspector found a package destined for Ventura labeled "books and chocolates." Inside were 350 citrus cuttings from Japan that were infested with canker, which has killed more than 2 million trees across Florida but does not exist in California.

He showed it to a supervisor, who, according to the Congressional Record, replied: "Look, we are here to protect the country from acts of terrorism. What do you expect me to do?"

The inspector sidestepped the supervisor and called the USDA. The resulting investigation ended with arrests and the incineration of 4,000 potentially infected trees that had been growing at an unregistered nursery in a prime citrus region.

But within a month, the whistleblower was demoted to search through the dirty laundry of passengers returning from foreign trips.

The inspector received what is (unfortunately) an all too common form of whistleblower retaliation despite saving California's citrus trees from a destructive disease (and consumers from paying an additional $130 million a year, according to the University of California Davis).

A culture clash between agricultural and anti-terror duties resulted after the Department of Homeland Security was established following 9/11. As I noted in a recent blog, DHS has been involved in food safety since its inception. The AP explains, however, that hundreds of agricultural scientists who were previously in charge of stopping invasive species at the border were reassigned to anti-terrorism duties. Since then, the number of pest cases intercepted at America's ports of entry decreased drastically. Below are some examples of the damage done by pest invasion:

- No fewer than 19 Mediterranean fruit fly infestations took hold in California, and the European grapevine moth triggered spraying and quarantines across wine country.

- 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.

Only after "the farm industry and members of Congress began complaining" in 2007 did pest defense go back up. If whistleblowers were provided better protection, and the importance of their truth-telling was commonly recognized, such costly destruction and environmental damage could have been prevented. Let’s make whistleblower protections a reality so future pest invasions and plant diseases are eradicated before they begin.

Sarah Damian is New Media Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.


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