Agricultural inspections are crucial - Fresno Bee

The glassy-winged sharpshooter, the Asian long-horned beetle, the Mediterranean fruit fly, the citrus canker and the Emerald Ash borer. Their names and origins are exotic, but the damage they do is real. And these are just a few of the many agricultural pests that can destroy an entire forest or decimate our nation's crops.

We know that the first line of defense against these pests is agriculture inspections at our borders. But with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) four years ago, the number of inspections has fallen off dramatically.

That's why I support moving the Animal and Plant Inspection Service (APHIS) -- the agency responsible for these inspections -- back to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), where it belongs. The stakes are simply too high.

The American agricultural industry spends $41 billion a year to control these pests, stop them from spreading across county and state lines, contain their destruction and eradicate them from our fields and forests.

In California alone, farmers spend about $3 billion a year to manage and remediate pest infestations.

And many of the most destructive agricultural pests are not native to our country. So where do they come from? They enter the country on a piece of fruit tucked into a lunch bag or a plant brought home as a souvenir from a traveler's latest adventure. And they enter the country in shipments of agricultural or horticultural products.

In 2003, the responsibility for conducting inspections of these items was transferred from the United States Department of Agriculture to the Department of Homeland Security. Since then, the number of agricultural inspections has dropped and the morale of agriculture specialists has been low.

Consider the findings of a recent Government Accountability Office report:

  • Inspections decreased in Miami by 12.7%, in Boston by 17.9% and San Francisco by 21.4%.
  • 60% of agriculture inspection specialists believed they were doing either "somewhat" or "many fewer" inspections since the transfer.
  • 63% of agriculture inspection specialists did not believe that their port had enough agriculture specialists to carry out agriculture duties.
  • 64% of the agriculture inspection specialists reported that their work was not respected by Customs and Border Patrol.

And while the number of inspections in San Diego has remained nearly constant in recent years, weaknesses are apparent in other areas across the country. We can't let this continue.

It is time to put the USDA back in charge of inspections and ensure that keeping dangerous agriculture pests out of our country remains a top priority. The failure in the past four years to protect our borders from the invasion of agricultural pests places our farmlands and forests at great risk.

In fact, during the time that Homeland Security has been in charge of agriculture inspections, Fresno County experienced its first fruit fly outbreak, quarantine and eradication.

The peach fruit fly was found last summer in Fresno County. The pest is indigenous to Asia and is not known to occur in Mexico. It is believed that the pest entered the country through one of the federal ports of entry in smuggled fruit carried in by an airline passenger.

After identifying the dangerous pest, 105 square miles had to be quarantined. And the eradication effort, which thankfully was successful, cost approximately $1 million.

We need to prevent pests like the peach fruit fly and the light brown apple moth -- which was recently found in Contra Costa and Alameda counties -- from entering our country and causing this damage. To do this, we need to reprioritize agriculture inspections at our borders.

The interception of pests at the border and the elimination of pest outbreaks is a top priority for California agriculture organizations. And many of these have asked for help in improving the inspection process, including: California Secretary of Agriculture A.G. Kawamura, California Farm Bureau, Fresno County Farm Bureau and many others.

With their support, I hope to return the responsibility for agriculture inspections at our borders to the logical place: the United States Department of Agriculture.

Dianne Feinstein is a Democrat who represents California in the U.S. Senate.