Biology in the News Explained

Anti-terrorism policies take money away from invasive species prevention

Asian longhorned beetle (courtesy Kyle Ramirez and Wikimedia Commons)

An Associate Press report confirms what everyone working for APHIS knew by 2003.

In the political realignments that occurred after 9/11 and the subsequent internal anthrax attacks, APHIS (the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) was gutted to send people and resources to the Department of Homeland Security with the charge of protecting the nation from bioterrorism. APHIS’s job is to protect us from another kind of biological security threat: pests that can damage crops and other invasive species that can cost billions of dollars to control after the fact in order to protect both our agricultural system and natural ecosystems (including vital watersheds).

At the Entomological Society of America’s annual meeting in 2004 many attending APHIS workers were lamenting the change, and how it was going to blow a big hole in APHIS’s ability to protect the country from pests.

Since then, associated with the rising trade with China we have seen the emergence of many new pest species, nearly all inadvertent introductions in shipments from Asia that have not been adequately inspected. Asian longhorned beetle, a generalist destructor of hardwood trees, emerald ash borer, another beetle now spreading from Michigan, and spotted-wing Drosophila are all major threats to our ecosystems and economy.  The first two entered the country before this realignment, demonstrating that we already were not prioritizing this threat enough at that time.

Now, we have left the door virtually wide open and added a “Welcome” sign.  How much crop and forest damage will it take to change the public views on this?  Sadly, it is one more clear example of government money being allocated based on special interests rather than any sort of cost-benefit analysis.  Anti-terrorism policies are politically popular, despite their enormous cost-to-benefit ratio.  The numbers of people killed by cars and guns in one year exceeds by well over an order of magnitude the number of people who have ever been killed in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, so clearly government policy is not really about saving lives.  At the same time, there are lots of lobbyists for business interests that resist any sort of actions, including time-consuming pest inspections, that might affect their bottom line slightly.  And outrageously, although we have a bond system (although inadequate) in place for most mines to pay for their clean-up when the mining companies cut and run, we have no such system for importers to provide a fund to clean up the mess their imported species make (this should be a no-brainer at least for those intentionally importing alien species that could eventually become pests).

No one is questioning the need to protect the nation from bioterrorism threats. Obviously, one agent getting through could wreak havoc and cost many lives.  So it’s understandable that resources have been allocated to this threat, even while alien invasive pests are eating their way through our agricultural and natural resources.  Disturbingly, it’s unclear how effective the money redirected toward anti-bioterrorism policy has been though.  If any attacks have been thwarted in the last ten years, the government has been keeping it secret.  In fact, apparently all that redirected money may not be truly protecting us anyway:   it seems that a big portion of the equation, the ability to coordinate a rapid response to a biological agent that does get through our defenses, has been virtually ignored, even though a lot of lives could be saved by having a plan.

The point is that once again, the long-term policies we need to support our society without hardship in the future are trumped by policies that are arguably less crucial, but that benefit someone financially in the short term.  There was no real reason why any of the money shifted to DHS had to come from the USDA, but certainly there was some political opportunism by decision-makers that probably was influenced by business interests.  Slowly but surely, our sense of place is being chipped away as a result, and in the end that could arguably take more away from us as a society than a single terrorist attack.

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