Central Valley: Final curtain for the pink boll worm

Oct 13th, 2010 | By | Category: Featured Stories, One Question

Every day, a Cessna 206 flies over California’s San Joaquin Valley. As it approaches the valley’s cotton fields, its rear door opens some 500 ft above the ground, to release a sea of small gray moth with fringed wings — pink boll worms.

story by Noemie Bisserbe

These boll worms — a major pest in cotton farming — are, however, of an unusual kind. They come from a small rearing facility in Phoenix, Arizona, where they have been irradiated to become sterile. As they are released in the environment, they will mate with the native population and produce eggs. But, the eggs will not hatch.

The Pink Boll worm Program — an aggressive trapping program to overwhelm native insect populations — is one of the most successful and longest running area wide integrated pest control programs in the world. For the past three decades, the program has allowed local cotton growers to manage the pest without the use of pesticides. This year, farmers believe that the pink boll worms have finally been completely eradicated from the San Joaquin Valley. “So far this season, no native moths have been identified in the valley’s cotton fields,” says Robert Hutmacher, director of the University of California’s West Side Research and Extension Center, in Shafter. “The program has been a great success and this is why cotton farmers in California have such high yields,” he adds.
Cotton production in California is of 2 to 2.5 million bales per year from approximately 700,000 to 800,000 acres of land. That’s five to eight percent of total US cotton plantings, but about 10 to 14 percent of the country’s total yearly production.

The San Joaquin Valley is also particularly well suited for cottons that are difficult to grow, explains Hutmacher. The region is well known for its Upland Acala cotton variety, that has very strong, long fibers, though California is also the country’s largest Pima cotton growing area.

Monsanto’s genetically engineered cotton, Bollgard, that is genetically engineered to resist pink bollworm and has been widely adopted in big cotton producing countries like South Africa, India and China, is not planted in California. “There is no use for it in the State,” says Hutmacher. California’s pink bollworm program could provide a viable template for developing countries where the high input costs associated to genetically modified crops, are hurting small farmers.

photo: Robert Hutmacher, director of the University of California’s West Side Research and Extension Center

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