Image: Agriculture specialist Mark Murphy, with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, examines bags of rice during an inspection in Oakland, Calif.
Eric Risberg  /  AP
Agriculture specialist Mark Murphy, with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, examines bags of rice during an inspection in Oakland, Calif., in August, 2011.
By
updated 10/10/2011 5:47:24 AM ET 2011-10-10T09:47:24

Dozens of foreign insects and plant diseases slipped undetected into the United States in the years after 9/11, when authorities were so focused on preventing another attack that they overlooked a pest explosion that threatened the quality of the nation's food supply.

At the time, hundreds of agricultural scientists responsible for stopping invasive species at the border were reassigned to anti-terrorism duties in the newly formed Homeland Security Department — a move that scientists say cost billions of dollars in crop damage and eradication efforts from California vineyards to Florida citrus groves.

The consequences come home to consumers in the form of higher grocery prices, substandard produce and the risk of environmental damage from chemicals needed to combat the pests.

An Associated Press analysis of inspection records found that border-protection officials were so engrossed in stopping terrorists that they all but ignored the country's exposure to destructive new insects and infections — a quietly growing menace that has been attacking fruits and vegetables and even prized forests ever since.

"Whether they know it or not, every person in the country is affected by this, whether by the quality or cost of their food, the pesticide residue on food or not being able to enjoy the outdoors because beetles are killing off the trees," said Mark Hoddle, an entomologist specializing in invasive species at the University of California, Riverside.

Homeland Security officials acknowledge making mistakes and say they are now working to step up agricultural inspections at border checkpoints, airports and seaports.

While not as dire as terrorism, the threat is considerable and hard to contain.

Many invasive species are carried into the U.S. by people who are either unaware of the laws or are purposely trying to skirt quarantine regulations. The hardest to stop are fruits, vegetables and spices carried by international travelers or shipped by mail. If tainted with insects or infections, they could carry contagions capable of devastating crops.

Plants and cut flowers can harbor larvae, as can bags of bulk commodities such as rice. Beetles have been found hitchhiking on the bottom of tiles from Italy, and boring insects have burrowed into the wooden pallets commonly used in cargo shipments.

Abrupt shift post-9/11
Invasive species have been sneaking into North America since Europeans arrived on the continent, and many got established long before 9/11.

But the abrupt shift in focus that followed the attacks caused a steep decline in agricultural inspections that allowed more pests to invade American farms and forests.

Story: US pest invasions date back to early settlers

Using the Freedom of Information Act, The Associated Press obtained data on border inspections covering the period from 2001 to 2010.

The analysis showed that the number of inspections, along with the number of foreign species that were stopped, fell dramatically in the years after the Homeland Security Department was formed.

Over much of the same period, the number of crop-threatening pests that got into the U.S. spiked, from eight in 1999 to at least 30 last year.

The bugs targeted some of the nation's most productive agricultural regions, particularly California and Florida, with their warm year-round climates that make it easy for foreign species to survive the journey and reproduce in their new home.

A look at the damage:

  • 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.
  • The sweet orange scab, a fungal disease that infects citrus, appeared in Florida, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, which all imposed quarantines.
  • Chili thrips, rice cutworms and the plant disease gladiolus rust also got into Florida, which saw a 27 percent increase in new pests and pathogens between 2003 and 2007.
  • The erythrina gall wasp decimated Hawaii's wiliwili trees, which bear seeds used to make leis.
  • Forests from Minnesota to the Northeast were also affected by beetles such as the emerald ash borer, many of which arrived in Chinese shipping pallets because regulations weren't enforced.

In all, the number of pest cases intercepted at U.S. ports of entry fell from more than 81,200 in 2002 to fewer than 58,500 in 2006, before creeping back up in 2007, when the farm industry and members of Congress began complaining.

Spiraling costs
Once the pests get established, costs can quickly spiral out of control. The most widely quoted economic analysis, conducted in 2004 by Cornell University, puts the total annual cost of all invasive species in the U.S. at $120 billion. Much of that burden is borne by consumers in the form of higher food costs and by taxpayers who pay for government eradication programs.

For instance, if the destructive infection known as citrus canker were to become established in California, which produces most of the nation's fresh oranges, consumers would pay up to $130 million more a year for the fruit, according to an ongoing study by scientists at the University of California at Davis.

"It's all about early detection, and it wasn't their priority at the time," said A.G. Kawamura, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture from 2003 through 2010, who was sharply criticized for the spraying in Monterey Bay.

Image: Agriculture specialist John Machado, with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, uses a knife to sift through an opened bag of rice
Eric Risberg  /  AP
Agriculture specialist John Machado, with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, uses a knife to sift through an opened bag of rice during an inspection in Oakland, Calif., in August, 2011.

And it's not just humans who pay the cost. Wildlife and beneficial insects die when fields are sprayed.

The problems began when the Homeland Security Department absorbed inspectors who worked for the Department of Agriculture. The move put plant and insect scientists alongside gun-toting agents from Customs and Border Protection and resulted in a bitter culture clash.

Agriculture supervisors were replaced in the chain of command by officials unfamiliar with crop science. Hundreds of inspectors resigned, retired or transferred to other agencies. Some of the inspectors who remained on the job lost their offices and desks and were forced to work out of the trunks of their cars.

It took authorities years "to learn there's an important mission there," said Joe Cavey, head of pest identification for a USDA inspection service. "Yeah, maybe a radioactive bomb is more important, but you have to do both things."

At the time of the merger, at least 339 of 1,800 inspector positions were vacant. By 2008, vacancies had increased to 500, or more than a quarter of the original workforce.

Profound effect
The effect of the exodus was profound. One East Coast port director told a congressional investigator that she was left without a single agriculture inspector. An airport technician in Bangor, Maine, said there wasn't one within 50 miles for two years.

One agriculture inspector who defied authority was demoted, despite being credited with saving California's citrus industry from the potentially devastating effects of canker.

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.

Government officials now acknowledge the problems and say they began taking corrective steps after Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California threatened in 2008 to propose a bill that would move inspectors back to the USDA and increase their numbers.

"That was a huge moment for everybody," said Kevin Harriger, Custom and Border Protection's acting executive director of agriculture programs. "We took it on the chin and said, 'You're right. We heard you. We've been remiss in several key areas.'"

Critics in Congress say serious damage has already been done.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, a Hawaii Democrat and member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, said the improvements aren't happening fast enough. He's asked the Government Accountability Office to reopen an investigation.

"When change like this happens, you hope people get it right the first time," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a California Democrat who also investigated the problems. "But if they don't, it's not them who pay the price. It's society that does."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: GOP candidates tackle question of U.S.-Mexico border security

  1. Closed captioning of: GOP candidates tackle question of U.S.-Mexico border security

    >> introducing another affiliate of ours, how are you doing?

    >> good evening, nice to see you all. nice to see you all. i want to talk about a subject dear to the heart of president reagan , he was the last u.s. president to sign immigration reform in 1986 . all of you, i think, have said you don't think immigration reform should be discussed until the border is secure, and governor, i'd like to ask you, border state governor, what specifically, in your mind, would make the border secure?

    >> well, the first thing you need to do is have boots on the ground . we've had a request in to this administration since january of 2009 for 1,000 border patrol agents, national guard troops, and working towards 3,000 border patrol . that's just on the texas border . there's another 50% more for the entire mexican border , so you can secure the border , but it requires a commitment of the federal government of putting those boots on the ground , aviation assets in the air, we think predator drones could be flown and realtime information coming down to the local, state, and federal law enforcement, and you can secure the border and at that particular point in time you can have an intellectually appropriate discussion about immigration reform . for the president of the united states to go to el paso , texas, and say the border is safer than it's ever been, either he has the poorest intel or he was a liar to the american people . it is not safe on that border .

    >> governor, specifically, do you agree or disagree with some of the issues the governor of texas says as far as what you would consider enough to be able to declare the border safe?

    >> well, first, we ought to have a fence.

    >> the whole fence, 2,600 miles?

    >> or a approved system to know who's coming into the country , number one. number two, we have to have enough agents to secure the fence, but the third thing, and i learned this when i was with border patrol agents in san diego . look, they can always get a ladder to go over the fence, the reason they come in such great numbers is because we've left the magnet on. what do you mean, the magnet? when employers are willing to hire people illegally, that's a magnet. sanctuary cities giving tuition breaks to illegal aliens , employers knowingly hire people who are here illegally. those things have to be stopped. we have to make sure we have a fence technologically showing where people are, and turn off that magnet. we can't talk about amnesty, we can't give amnesty to those who come here illegally. let those people come in first and those here illegally, they shouldn't have a special deal.

    >> speaker gingrich, your perception on immigration reform , you've been different on your initial positions.

    >> i think we have to find a way to get to a country in which everybody who's here is here legally, but you started by referencing president reagan . in 1986 , i voted for the simson mizoliac. president reagan wrote in his diary that year he signed the act because we were going to have an employer-program where it was an illegal guest worker program . that's in his diary. i'm with president reagan , we ought to control the border , have a legal guest worker program , outsource it to american express , visa, and mastercard so there's no counter counterfeiting. make english the official language of government, we should insist first generation immigrants that come here learn american history in order to become citizens, and also insist american citizens learn american history , and then find a way to deal with folks already here, some of whom are here 25 years, live in our neighborhood, go to church, it has to be done in a more humane way than automatically to deport millions of people.

    >> your solution?

    >> similar to newt gingrich 's. look, i'm the son of an italian immigrant. i think immigration is one of the great things that's made this country the dynamic country that it continues to be, people who are drawn because of the ideals of this country, and so we should not have a debate talking about how we don't want people to come to this country, but we want them to come here like my grandfather and my father came here, they made sacrifices, they came in the 1920s with no promises or government benefits. they came because they wanted to be free and good law-abiding citizens. we have to have a program in place that says you want to come to this country, come according to the rules, it's a very good first step that the first thing you do here is a legal act , not an illegal act.

    >> so there are 11 million people that are here, what do you do with them if you are able to secure the border ?

    >> well, i think we can have the discussion that whether what we do with people, how long they've been here, whether they have other types of records, but to have that discussion right now and pull the same trick that was pulled in 1986 , well, we promise to do this if you do that, no more. we are going to secure the border first, and that's the most important thing to do, then we'll have the discussion afterwards.

    >> congresswoman, you said the fence, you believe the fence is fundamental controlling the border , let's say in 2012 or 2013 , there's a fence, border is secure, gasoline is $2 a gallon, what do you do then with 11 million people, many of whom with u.s.-born children here, what do you do?

    >> understand the context and the problem we're dealing with. many mexico right now, we're dealing with terrorists. this is a very serious problem. to not build a border or a fence on every part of that border would be, in effect, to yield united states sovereignty, not only to our nation but to another nation. that we cannot do. one thing the american people have said to me over and over again. last week i was in miami with cuban americans , i met with a number of people, and it's very interesting, the hispanic-american community wants to stop giving benefits to illegal aliens and benefits to their children as well.

    >> a quick 30-second rebuttal on the specific question. the fence is built, border is under control, what do you do with 11.5 million here without documents or u.s.-born children?

    >> social security sequential and it depends where they live, how long they've been here, if they have a criminal record , all of those things have to be taken into place, but one thing we know, our immigration law worked beautifully in the 1950s , up until the 1960s , when people had to demonstrate they had money in their pocket, had no diseases, weren't a felon, learned american history and the constitution, and the one thing they had to promise is that they would not become a burden on the american tax payer. that's what we have to enforce.

    >> mr. cain.

    >> let's make sure -- let's solve all of the problems, it's not one problem. i do believe we can secure the border with a combination of boots on the ground , technology, and a fence, but we have three other problems. we got to secure the border , secondly, let's promote the path to citizenship that's already there. we don't need a new one, we just need to clean up the bureaucracy that's slowing the process down and discouraging people. third thing we need to do, enforce the laws that are states. i believe that the people closest to the problem are the best ones to be able to solve that problem, empower the states to do what the federal government hasn't done, can't do, and won't do. this is how we solve the entire problem.

    >> thank you, governor.

    >> i would just have to say that i agree with so much of what has been said here today. president reagan , when he made his decision back in 1987 , he saw this as a human issue, and i hope that all of us, as we deal with this immigration issue, will always see it as an issue that resolves around real human beings . yes, they came here in an illegal fashion and yes, they should be punished in some fashion. i have two daughters that came here legally of the we can find a solution. if president reagan were here, he would speak to the american people and lay out how we can get there, remembering full well we're dealing with human beings here. but let me say one thing, let's not lose sight of the fact our immigration system is broken and if we want to do something about attracting brain power to this country, if we want to lift real estate values, why is it vancouver is the fastest-growing real estate market in the world today? they allow immigrants in legally.

    >> obviously, it's a problem. we need to remove the easy road to citizenship. nobody has mentioned the fact they qualify for benefits as well, welfare benefits . the state of texas shouldn't be forced to provide free health care and free education , but there is a mess down there, and it's a big mess, and it's the drug war that's going on there, and our drug laws are driving this, so now we're killing thousands and thousands of people, that makes it much more complica complicated, but the people that want big fences and guns, sure, barbed wire fence with machine guns , that's not what america is about. if we had a healthy economy, this wouldn't be such a bad deal, but every time you think about this toughness on the border and i.d. cards and real ideas, it's a penalty against the american people too. i think this fence business is designed and may well be used against us and keep us in. in economic turmoil, people want to leave with their capital and there's capital controls and people control. every time you think about the fence, think about the fences being used against us keeping us in.

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