The Fly That Quarantined California and Pitted Environmentalists Against FarmersWatch the video
TEXT ON SCREEN: July 10, 1981
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 7-10-81):
TED KOPPEL: The Mediterranean fruit fly today brought the federal government and the governor of California into direct confrontation.
NARRATION: In the early 1980s, the Mediterranean fruit fly threatened California’s huge agricultural industry.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 8-11-81):
NEWS REPORT: For California farmers, it is like a nightmare coming true.
ARCHIVAL (KCRA, EARLY JULY 1981):
NEWS REPORT: Some say it is potentially the greatest economic disaster California has ever faced.
NARRATION: The state declared an all-out assault on the invasive pest.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 7-12-81):
NEWS REPORT: Crews spraying malathion are moving from house to house, but the medfly is also on the move.
NARRATION: The outbreak soon became a political minefield for California governor Jerry Brown.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, EARLY JULY 1981)
MAN: You just don’t spray poison over a population.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, EARLY JULY 1981): FARMER: The governor is thinking in terms of votes.
NARRATION: How did a tiny fly create so much buzz?
ARCHIVAL (KCRA, JULY 1981): SONG: Now it’s B-52’s, we’re going to pay some dues. We got the Mediterranean fruit fly blues.
NARRATION: And where is the medfly today?
THE FLY WARS
ARCHIVAL (ABC, NIGHTLINE, JULY 1981) TED KOPPEL: On the face of it, it almost has a whimsical aspect. The federal government being brought to bear against the fruit fly, and the Mediterranean fruit fly at that.
NARRATION: In the summer of 1981, the invasive medfly was spreading like wildfire through California’s Santa Clara Valley.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 7-12-81):
NEWS REPORT: Medfly larvae has now been found in 133 locations in two counties.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 8-11-81): JERRY SCRIBNER: The danger is that the fly spreads before you know it’s there.
JERRY SCRIBNER (FORMER MEDFLY ERADICATION PROGRAM DIRECTOR): In San Jose everywhere we looked it became bigger and bigger.
NARRATION: The medfly spreads when females lay eggs in fruits and vegetables.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 7-9-81):
NEWS REPORT: The larva eat them and make them unmarketable.
MAN: We would just be totally shut down and in our case it would be a financial ruin.
NARRATION: To stop the fly’s advance, Governor Jerry Brown ordered a massive eradication program.
ARCHIVAL (Newscene 7, LATE JULY 1981):
CHARLES THOMAS: When it comes to the Mediterranean Fruit Fly, conventional weapons like this just don’t solve the problem. The medfly is the meanest, the toughest, excuse the vernacular, but the baddest bug ever to buzz the Bay.
NARRATION: State workers went neighborhood to neighborhood spraying pesticides. Local citizens were ordered to strip their fruit trees and gardens.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 7-11-81):
NEWS REPORT: People who don’t comply with the order may be fined or jailed.
NARRATION: And the highway patrol set up roadblocks to enforce a local quarantine, keeping infested fruit away from the huge farms in California’s Central Valley.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 8-15-01):
ROADBLOCK INSPECTOR: Do you have any fresh fruit or vegetables, sir?
ARCHIVAL (KCRA, JULY 1981):
JERRY BROWN: People can’t take fruit out of the quarantine area. It’s a threat to agriculture. It’s a threat to other states, and it must be stopped.
NARRATION: Only 36 when he succeeded Ronald Reagan as governor of California, Brown was not a typical politician. He had studied in a Jesuit Seminary, dated the singer Linda Ronstadt, and his sometimes unconventional ideas earned him the nickname Governor Moonbeam.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 3-10-82): JERRY BROWN: I see a future where we stretch out to space itself.
NARRATION: Now, with the medfly threatening the state’s $14 billion agricultural industry, the environmentalist governor was reluctant to use the one tactic that had worked for other states – aerial spraying of the pesticide malathion.
JERRY SCRIBNER: There was enormous fear and resistance and objection. The biggest fear was the unknown.
ARCHIVAL (KCRA, EARLY JULY, 1981):
NEWS REPORT: Many have been scared by scientists who say malathion causes cancer, confused by others who say it does not.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 7-11-81): We feel like we are just trapped here. And we’re going to be sprayed. We’re going to be living in a sea of malathion.
ARCHIVAL (CBS 7-11-81): WOMAN: I could have a two-pound baby instead of a nice, healthy seven-pound baby.
NARRATION: The fuss over malathion made little sense to farmers.
ARCHIVAL (KOVR, EARLY JULY, 1981): CROP DUSTER: It’s such a mild insecticide it’s just not used around the farm anymore.
JERRY SCRIBNER: It’s low risk, 2.4 ounces per acre spread in these little droplets and we did a health study by the Department of Health that showed it was really no significant health risk.
NARRATION: Governor Brown went against his medfly advisors and decided not to spray from the air.
ARCHIVAL (KCRA, JULY 1981): JERRY BROWN: I’ve got to weigh the health effects and the impact on people.
NARRATION: But the federal government soon forced the Governor’s hand.
ARCHIVAL (KCRA, 7-10-81): JOHN BLOCK (U.S. SECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE): We are prepared and indeed intend to entirely quarantine the state of California.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 7-10-81): JERRY BROWN: The decision of the United States Department of Agriculture leaves California with no alternative. We are being forced into aerial spraying.
NARRATION: Today an army of state employees went door to door to warn residents to stay inside when the aerial spraying begins. Brown’s reversal angered many Santa Clara residents.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 7-11-81): MAN: This is just plain past the limits of what’s acceptable.
NARRATION: Just as his hesitation to order aerial spraying had angered farmers.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 8-15-81):
COWBOY: The man has just bungled this thing from the very beginning all the way through.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 8-28-81): JERRY BROWN: It’s very easy now as the Monday morning quarterback to say, why didn’t you do this, why didn’t you do that?
NARRATION: But with helicopters in the air, the state began to win the war against the medfly.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 8-28-81): JERRY SCRIBNER: Where we have been spraying, we have not been finding flies, we have not been finding larvae.
NARRATION: In the fall of ‘82, state officials declared victory in the war against the medfly. Jerry Brown ran for US Senate – and lost.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 12-9-89): GARRICK UTLEY: And now, the return of the medfly.
NARRATION: Just a few years later, another big infestation hit California, this time in Los Angeles.
ASHLEY DUNN (LOS ANGELES TIMES): There was kind of an iconic image of the infestation and in fact the iconic image was not the fly which most people will not be able to identify. It was not fruit. It was in fact this sort of ‘Apocalypse Now’ image of a bunch of helicopters with these large spraying devices flying in formation over summertime LA. And just weaving back and forth across the sky, all night long.
ARCHIVAL (SCENE FROM THE MOVIE ‘SHORT CUTS,’ 1993): MADELINE STOWE: Jane! Jane! The helicopters are here! Shut the windows!
ASHLEY DUNN (THE LOS ANGELES TIMES): This time the spraying encompassed literally all of LA. And it was so frequent. There were some places that were probably sprayed over a dozen times. This just drove people insane.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 12-9-89): PROTESTORS: Stop spraying! Stop spraying.
NARRATION: When the fly spread to Pasadena, Ashley Dunn covered a mid-air standoff between the city’s police helicopters and the state’s sprayers.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 2-22-90): POLICE ON RADIO: I’m going to have to ask you to cease and desist.
NARRATION: But the oddest story involved a shadowy group calling itself the Breeders.
ASHLEY DUNN: The Breeders sent a letter to the police, the LA Times saying that they were purposefully releasing medflies. They wanted to communicate through the classified ads, so the county responded. They took out an ad. I don’t believe anybody ever heard from them. It just added yet another weird edge to the story.
NARRATION: By the fall of 1990, officials were ready to once again declare the medfly eradicated.
ASHLEY DUNN: I remember that moment in which this sort of battered group of county and state officials said, well we beat it and literally it was not more than a few months later, another one was found. And a few more years later and we had another large scale infestation almost the size of 89-90 infestation. And it has not stopped since then.
NARRATION: Between 1990 and 2013, medflies were detected in California in all but four years, and the continual outbreaks have led a growing number of scientists to conclude that the pest is now a permanent resident of California.
JAMES CAREY (UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, DAVIS): They’re really established throughout the state, there’s absolutely no question. But they’re very low populations. And so what the State has done is really suppressed them, but they haven’t contained them.
NARRATION: California officials deny that the medfly is established, but say the state’s approach would not change even if it were. Over $250 million has been spent on more than 60 emergency medfly eradication programs over the past several decades.
ROBERT LEAVITT (CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF FOOD AND AGRICULTURE): California agriculture is an almost $40 billion business. So we have to work very closely with trading partners to establish that California is in fact free of the Mediterranean fruit fly.
NARRATION: Today California continues to fight the medfly. And Jerry Brown is back. Nearly 30 years after his battle with the bug, Brown ran again for governor and told supporters, quote “If I see a medfly I’m going to spray that sucker. I’m not waiting this time.”
But this time Governor Brown won’t have to spray.
ROBERT LEAVITT: We realized the aerial sprays were very controversial and we started looking for alternatives. So we were able to move away from the aerial insecticide sprays to the sterile insect technique.
NARRATION: California now raises millions of sterile medflies every day, dropping them from small airplanes seven days a week. The sterile males mate with wild females and interrupt the life cycle. This strategy has managed to suppress not only the medfly, but also the politics that once swarmed around this pest.
JERRY SCRIBNER: The public just does not want to be sprayed from the air by anything. It’s a gut feeling. Don’t spray me.
ASHLEY DUNN: Once the state realized that aerial spraying was just not the way to go, the whole issue of the medfly sort of dropped away into the background of weird events.
ARCHIVAL (KOVR): SUSAN BLAKE: The battle over the medfly…
ASHLEY DUNN: But it was there, parts of it were real.
ARCHIVAL (CHANNEL 3): REPORTER (IN HELICOPTER): Not every car was being stopped, only vehicles that the highway patrol has a fairly good idea that there may be fruit in those vehicles..
ASHLEY DUNN: It was a sort of low-level mass panic over something that was both crazy and reasonable at the same time. And this all sprang from this little fruit fly.