Editorial by Syd Singer, Director, Good Shepherd Foundation, Pahoa, Hawaii:
Hawaii’s first resolution to ban biocontrol was approved 6-3 by the Hawaii County Council on August 19th. The ban is on any use of biocontrol targeting relatives of the o’hia tree, the primary tree of our native forests, which includes the strawberry guava, paperbark trees, guava, eucalyptus, and other members of the myrtle family.
While the resolution is non-binding, it comes as a blow to the US Forest Service, the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, and the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, which have been proposing the experimental infestation of the entire state of Hawaii with an alien scale insect, called Tectococcus ovatus, for the management of strawberry guava.
Biocontrol researchers deliberately infest the environment with biological “agents”, which are alien insects, fungi, bacteria, viruses and other pathogens, used to attack targeted “weed” species. The goal is to make these weeds sick, slowing their growth and spread.
Unfortunately, introducing any alien species can cause unpredictable impacts on the environment. Introduced species, for example, are known to evolve and adapt to using new food sources, and can do so rapidly and unpredictably. This makes using biocontrol a risky gamble that Big Island residents are not willing to take.
Big Island Councilmember Kelly Greenwell introduced Resolution 80-09 banning biocontrol against relatives of the o’hia to protect the o’hia tree. Relatives of targeted species are the most likely to be attacked as the biocontrol “agent” seeks new food sources, making the o’hia vulnerable to attack by any biocontrol release against any tree in the myrtle family, of which the o’hia is a member.
The public has been strongly opposed to the proposed scale insect attack on the strawberry guava, with over 6,000 residents on the Big Island signing a petition opposing the release.
Private property owners who enjoy having strawberry guava for its wood, fruit, and beauty would have to spray pesticides to try controlling the scale on their property, or bulldoze and replace the infested trees with scale resistant species, according to the US Forest Service, the lead agency proposing this biocontrol experiment. Property damage compensation has not been addressed, and could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. See www.BioDamage.com for more details.
Other residents express health concerns over the proposed insect infestation. Trillions of insect eggs and crawling nymphs, which would be floating in the air and dispersed with the wind, along with the tiny flying males, could create a health hazard when contacted by the skin or inhaled, especially for asthmatics and people with allergies to chitin, a common allergen associated with insects. This problem could be especially bad in residential areas, such as lower Puna, where strawberry guava is prevalent and insect infestations could be astronomical, especially since there are no predators for this alien insect in Hawaii to control its numbers.
Hunters are concerned about the impact of reduced fruit for pigs and other wildlife. Farmers are concerned that the scale insect could start attacking commercial crops. And many environmentalists fear the introduction of any alien species could result in a new invasive species problem, especially with insects and fungi whose impact is difficult to follow, and impossible to reverse or stop.
The proposed attack on strawberry guava also came at a time when people are unemployed and are especially grateful for having free, wild food. An attempt last spring to ban the biocontrol of food plants was made by Big Island Senator Takamine and Representative Nakashima. Unfortunately, SB 108 and HCR 249 were never allowed to get a hearing by committee chairs.
According to critics, the basic problem with biocontrol is that it spreads onto private property, its impact is unpredictable, it is a living organism that can evolve and adapt rapidly, and after release there is no turning back. The environment is changed, forever.
Fortunately, there are alternatives to biocontrol, which were raised at several County Council meetings. The University of Hawaii has patented a clean process for converting green matter into biochar, a valuable soil amendment, as well as a clean process for creating carbon, also in high demand commercially. Instead of considering strawberry guava, guava, ironwood, albesia, and other non-native trees as “weeds”, we can now treat them as resources. Creating an industry to harvest, process, and sell wood products from our forests can help conservation efforts while creating jobs and opportunities. It also avoids the risks caused by releasing alien species.
Residents have expressed their disapproval of using biocontrol against the strawberry guava and other myrtles. It remains to be seen whether or not the state and federal agencies proposing these biocontrol experiments will respect and abide by the will of the County Council. The basic question is whether the future of our island will be determined by federal and state government biocontrol researchers, or by the people.
For more information, see the website www.SaveTheGuava.com.
Filed under: Agriculture, Announcements, Big Island, Community, County Council, Economy, Environment, Guest Commentator, Hawaii, Hawaiian, Health, Legal | Tagged: Biocontrol, Strawberry Guava, Syd Singer | 19 Comments »