Arizona cotton growers have put the pink bollworm on notice — its days are numbered in the Grand Canyon State.

An overwhelming majority of the state's almost 900 cotton growers approved in mid-May a referendum to initiate a pink bollworm eradication program.

Now those same growers will focus their attention on convincing Congress it to do its part in eradicating the pest.

Arizona growers removed any doubt that they are willing to put up the money to do their part of fitting the last piece of the puzzle in place to eradicate the world's most destructive cotton pest from the Desert Southwest and Northern Mexico.

Some 72 percent of the state's growers participated in the vote with 79 percent of Farm Service Agency cotton growers of record approving the referendum. Those represented 56 percent of the state's 220,000 acres of cotton.

Arizona Cotton Growers Executive Vice President Rick Lavis said the vote represented not only an endorsement of the eradication effort, but a vote of trust for leaders of the program that the eradication effort will not move forward without federal funding to rear millions more sterile pink bollworm moths necessary for complete eradication.

“We are ready to move forward with the first phase of the program in 2005 if we can convince Congress to fund the sterile moth program,” said Lavis.

U.S. funds essential

While congressional funding is necessary for Arizona to begin an eradication program, that funding has become absolutely critical for growers in New Mexico, Texas and Northern Mexico who are well into a successful eradication effort but need to overwhelm low native populations with sterile moths. The sterile pink bollworm moths would be reared in a facility in Phoenix operated by California cotton growers to supply sterile larvae for distribution over SJV cotton acres each year. For more than 35 years SJV producers have kept pinkies out of the valley using sterile release technology.

Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Northern Mexico growers hope some day to have the same maintenance program as SJV growers.

And, they are so close they can taste it thanks to biotechnology, specifically Bt cotton which has been used along with pheromone technology to reduce PBW to the lowest level in decades in Texas, New Mexico and Northern Mexico with a grower-funded program over the past four years.

That success spawned a second try in Arizona to pass a pink bollworm eradication program referendum. The first attempt was in 1999. It gained majority approval, but fell short of the two-thirds necessary to become law.

Funding to trap and treat for pink bollworms throughout Arizona will come from a $32 per acre assessment for growers who are not growing Bt cotton. If a grower plants Bt cotton, he will not be assessed.

Mexico strong player

Not only did the success in Texas and New Mexico spur on support for eradication in Arizona, but Mexico's strong participation in the eradication effort has been a real positive. Some say Mexico has actually become the leader in the program now operating. There was uncertainty five years ago when Arizona first voted about Mexico's commitment to controlling pink bollworm south of the border. Without that, there is little hope of controlling PBW in border states.

The most telling aspect of the successful Texas/New Mexico/Mexico effort is that pink bollworm numbers have been significantly reduced with a lower percentage of Bt cotton planted there than in Arizona.

That region has only once planted 50 percent of its acreage to Bt cotton since the technology was introduced. Today it is planted on less than half the acreage. Arizona's acreage is between 60 percent to 70 percent. It has been higher.

“We are talking a worse case scenario in that eradication zone — a combination of long season Pima cotton and less Bt cotton than is grown in Arizona yet they have had dramatic success in reducing pinkie numbers,” said Marana Ariz., grower Wiley Murphy, chairman of the Arizona pink bollworm eradication committee.

Arizona growers have spent billions of dollars controlling pink bollworm since it invaded Arizona almost 40 years ago. First it was with repeated aerial pesticide applications and now with technology fees for growing Bt cotton.

According to Arizona Cotton Growers Association president Clyde Sharp of Roll, Ariz., eradication of the pink bollworm would mean growers would no longer be forced to pay any money to control pink bollworm.

Potential savings

As much as growers like Sharp dislike the high cost of biotechnology, unquestionably, he and other Arizona growers believe Bt cotton has kept them in the cotton business. However, it has not been without significant cost they believe now can be eliminated with eradication.

“I think now there is a strong possibility that we can eradicate pinkies in Southern California and Arizona using the combination of Bt cotton, pheromones and sterile moths to the point that you have a maintenance program like we do in the San Joaquin Valley,” said Wally Shropshire of Blythe, Calif., chairman of the California Cotton Pest Control Board which oversees the Phoenix sterile moth rearing facility and the SJV PBW maintenance program.

Each year the San Joaquin Valley is blanketed with millions of sterile pink bollworm moths reared in Phoenix, transported to the San Joaquin Valley and then dropped by airplanes over the valley's cotton acreage. This overwhelms any fertile moths. If a sterile moth mates with a fertile moth, the fertile moth does not lay viable eggs and the life cycle is broken.

It has been working for 36 years at a cost of less than $3 per bale to growers. It is one of the most successful biological agricultural pest control programs ever.

Desert Southwest growers are asking Congress for $7.8 million to ramp up for a blanketing cost-sharing sterile moth program for Mexico, Texas' Trans Pecos region, New Mexico and now Arizona.

Start in east

If Congress provides the money, the Arizona program would start next season in Eastern Arizona, moving the next year to Central Arizona and finally to Western Arizona and eventually to Southern California.

Program managers would set pheromone pinkie traps throughout the state and treat with pheromones at threshold levels or in severe cases pesticides to reduce numbers.

When Arizona finishes its eradication effort, the maintenance program like that in the San Joaquin would cover 500,000 acres from Texas to Southern California.

To move into the sterile moth-release phase in those eradication areas, the pink bollworm rearing facility in Phoenix must increase its pink bollworm output from 2.5 million moths to 10 million per day. The facility has the capacity to produce that many moths. Funds also are needed to distribute moths in the binational eradication zone and for USDA-APHIS regulatory activities. The total cost of that is about $6 million.

Right now that funding request is in the House Agriculture Appropriations Committee. Unless federal funds are forthcoming to for the Texas-New Mexico-Mexico program, the program there will either have to raise rates or cut back services to continue without the sterile release program. That could jeopardize success achieved so far.

Eradicating the pink bollworm in Arizona would not only put more money into grower pockets, it could be a door re-opener to bring Pima acreage back to Central Arizona. It takes longer to produce Pima cotton and the longer the season, the more vulnerable cotton is to pinkies. That is one reason growers there quit growing it. Mo¡re than 90 percent of the nation's Pima cotton is now growing in pinkie-free San Joaquin Valley.

Improved cottons

Eradication could also enhance the efforts of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association to breed higher quality, non-transgenic cottons for Arizona. The association initiated its own breeding program three years ago, contending that varieties offered to Arizona producers were not the best suited for the desert. The threat of the pink bollworm almost makes it a necessity to introduce insect-resistant genes into any new variety. This adds several years to the variety development process.

“We took care of the boll weevil and the screwworm fly with a lot fewer tools than we have to¡day to take care of the pink bollworm. Pinkie is a single-host insect, and there is no reason we cannot eradicate it,” Sharp said.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com