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Is anyone listening to signals from grasshopper invasion?

(July 31, 2002 -- CropChoice news) -- The following story by Shepherd Bliss appeared on tompaine.com -- http://www.tompaine.com/feature.cfm/ID/6046

Shepherd Bliss, D.Min., owns the organic Kokopelli Farm in northern California and has contributed to 16 books.

The biggest grasshopper invasion since World War II has hit the West this summer. Grass, crops, and pastures are being ravaged by grasshoppers and Mormon crickets in unusually large numbers. Most states west of the Mississippi have been attacked.

"They're even eating the paint off some of the houses," moaned Nebraska farmer Robert Larsen. Outside Steamboat, Colo., 200 grasshoppers per square yard have been counted, reaching up to one million grasshoppers per acre.

A grasshopper can eat more than half its body weight per day. Some people feel like they are experiencing one of the Biblical plagues -- as if they were being punished for some "sin."

When my family in Nebraska talks about grasshoppers, I think of their cousins here in Northern California where I farm -- the glassy-winged sharpshooter (GWSS) that threatens our lucrative wine industry. The GWSS has already infested various southern counties, and a few have come up here.

Is the arrival of such pests in large numbers and often to new areas isolated incidents, or do they represent a pattern? Are these pests the problem, or merely the symptom of a deeper problem? What has happened to the predators that have historically eaten such pests?

The media tends to cover the grasshopper invasion as resulting from hot, dry weather and as drought-caused. Little is said about the global warming that in all likelihood causes the drought and probably will worsen, if current trends continue.

The sharpshooter has come North because of climate change; it certainly will not be the last new pest to migrate our way. The sharpshooters have historically thrived in warmer climates to the south and perished in cooler weather. Even a slight rise in temperature expands their territorial reach.

The main solution currently used for the grasshopper and GWSS invasions is pesticides. But that merely treats the symptom, and can have unwanted side effects that worsen the underlying cause. The California Department of Food and Agriculture is foolishly spending millions of our tax dollars to arm itself with chemicals; the bugs will adapt and resist. The federal government recently granted California another $28 million for its chemical war against the dreaded beasts.

But the next major pest surely waits in the shadows, and the short-term gain of eliminating some of today's pests by chemicals poses very significant long-term risks by further disrupting nature's balance -- polluting the soil, air, and water and killing many beneficial insects, including those that would naturally keep these pests in check.

Rather than treat the symptoms with a chemical-led assault, we need a systemic approach. All creatures have natural predators. When agribusiness plants a monocrop, such as wine grapes, and saturates the fields with chemicals, it destroys those predators and invites pests to a banquet. This only makes a bad problem worse.

Sometimes answers and alternatives are right before our eyes, even if policy makers and agri-businessmen donít see them. Grass is one of nature's treasures and agriculture's most valuable crops, though its importance is often over-looked in favor of value-added final products like wine. Itís also essential to a healthy food chain. Spraying bugs on the grass leads to the accumulation of toxins in the soil and plants, which not only moves up the food chain to humans, according to scientists, but wreaks havoc on the ecosystem.

We need to ask the larger questions and consider what the grasshopper invasion symptom tells us about the health of nature and our food system. What has happened to the birds and rodents that usually prey on grasshoppers and the fungal diseases that keep the numbers of insects down? Such smaller critters are vulnerable to the pesticides used to kill unwanted insects. Beneficial insects -- including bees, ladybugs, spiders and dragonflies far outnumber pests and are also killed by pesticides.

The costs of spraying pesticides are much more than hiring an aerial sprayer and buying the chemicals. If global warming continues unabated and agribusiness continues with its chemical addiction, grasshopper and glassy-winged sharpshooter problems are likely to worsen. Ultimately, only the chemical companies will benefit.

This summerís grasshopper invasions are a wake-up call to not only look at how chemicals continue to unbalance ecosystems and contribute to climate changes, they should prompt policy makers and business leaders to fundamentally rethink the way theyíre managing the food chain and ecosystems that support it.