Almost 900 Arizona cotton growers are voting for the second time in five years to initiate a pink bollworm (PBW) eradication program industry leaders hope can exorcise the economic albatross that has been hanging around their necks for four decades.

Arizona Cotton Growers Association president Clyde Sharp of Roll, Ariz.; Wiley Murphy, Marana, Ariz., cotton grower and chairman of the Arizona Pink Bollworm Eradication Committee; Wally Shropshire of Blythe, Calif., chairman of the California Cotton Pest Control Board and Bill Lovelady, Tornillo, Texas cotton producer and chairman of the National Cotton Council's pink bollworm action committee have spent careers battling what is considered the most destructive cotton pest in the world.

All four are convinced for the first time in those long careers that PBW can be eradicated once and for all using a combination of Bt cotton, pheromones to prevent mating and massive sterile moth releases.

Their convictions stem from the success over the past four years of reducing pink bollworm numbers to the lowest levels in decades in Far West Texas, New Mexico and Northern Mexico across the border from those two states in a mandatory eradication program.

That success is what 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. There was organized opposition last time. There are growers opposed this time, but industry leaders say it has not been as vehement this time as in 1999.

Ballots were mailed to 878 Arizona cotton growers on April 29. They are due back by May 14 with the results expected on May 24.

Assessment

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. There would be no assessment on Bt acreage.

“Several things are changed from last time,” said Murphy. One is the success in reducing PBW numbers in the Texas Trans Pecos/New Mexico/Mexico region over the past four seasons.

“Arizona is not the first to try it any more. That took care of a lot of skepticism,” said Murphy. Secondly, Mexico is a strong participant in the eradication effort, some say it is the leader. There was uncertainty five years ago about Mexico's commitment to controlling pink bollworm south of the border. Without that, there is little hope of controlling PBW in border states.

Sharp said before Bt cotton had just arrived in the state and growers were not comfortable with the varieties offered not the technology. This time there is a wider selection and that would facilitate more widespread Bt cotton planting to enhance eradication efforts.

Perhaps 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 less than half the acreage. Arizona's acreage is between 60-70 percent. It has been higher.

“We are talking a worse case scenario for eradication — 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 Murphy.

Spent billions

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

“If we can eliminate pink bollworm altogether we would be out from under Monsanto's thumb and not have to spend millions of dollars trying to stay on top of pink bollworm,” said Sharp.

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.

Without Bt cotton there would likely not be an Arizona and Southern California desert cotton industry. Yet growers want to use that same technology to rid themselves of the cost of technology.

“Bt cotton represents a remarkable transformation for Southern California growers in the Imperial and Palo Verde valleys,” said Shropshire. Where aerial applicators once flew weekly to control pinkies, they fly only two to three times per season to control silverleaf whitefly. The same is true for Arizona where growers average fewer pesticide applications per year than California. It once was just the opposite when PBW was in control.

It is a widely held contention among producer that if they were allowed to plant 100 percent Bt cotton without a refuge, pinkies would disappear. However, Monsanto will not allow that, demanding that growers establish non-Bt cotton refuges to prevent PBW resistance buildup to the Bt gene inserted through biotechnology into cotton plants. UA studies have indicated no field resistance to Bt so far, admittedly a surprise to many.

Optimistic outlook

“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 Shropshire.

More than three decades ago pink bollworm was knocking at the door of the San Joaquin Valley's million acres of cotton. Borrowing a page from the successful screwworm fly eradication in the cattle industry using sterile moths to overwhelm fertile populations, SJV cotton growers initiated a pink bollworm suppression program using sterile moths and extensive trapping to monitor for fertile PBW moths.

Each year the 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 is designed to overwhelm 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 about $3 per bale to growers. It is one of the most successful biological control programs ever and it is totally funded by SJV producers.

In recent years, most of the fertile moth finds have been traced to moths blown in from the Southern California desert, but those numbers have been dramatically reduced with Bt cotton being grown in the desert areas.

In Arizona, Texas and New Mexico pink bollworm number have been too great for the same 36 years to attempt a sterile moth maintenance program. However, with Bt cotton and mating confusion with pheromones and huge sterile moth drops, industry leaders believe they can reduce numbers low enough to keep the pest at bay there with a minimal sterile moth program like that in the San Joaquin.

Start next year

If approved by growers, 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 when trap counts dictate with pheromones 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.

While there is a sense of optimism from Arizona to the El Paso Valley that there is hope that growers are on the road to eradicating pink bollworm, there is a big $7.8 million hurdle in the middle of that path. That is the amount of federal money requested to ramp up for a blanketing cost-sharing sterile moth program for Mexico, Texas' Trans Pecos and New Mexico.

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 per day to 10 million. The facility has the physical capacity to produce that many moths with minimal expenditure. 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 stalled in the House Agriculture Appropriations Committee. The longer it lingers there, the greater jeopardy there is for the final success of the binational Texas, New Mexico and Mexico program, said Lovelady.

“We cannot continue forever with the Bt/pheromone program as it is now. It is a front end loaded program that will become too expensive at some point to continue,” said Lovelady.

“The trap counts are such that we have to move now to the next level, wide scale sterile moth releases,” said Lovelady. Many were hoping it would begin this year, but it will not.

Unfortunately, Lovelady said, growers in the El Paso Valley “do not understand the necessity of lobbying hard to get federal funding” to blanket the area with steriles.

“There is a tendency to think that things are so good now that why bother Congress and lobby to shore up a great program,” said Lovelady.

Growers in the eradication area are now being assessed $20 per acre for non-Bt cotton and $10 per acre for Bt cotton to fund the program. Without the sterile moth releases, Lovelady said the program will either have to raise rates or cut back services to continue without the sterile release program. That could jeopardize success achieved so far.

Murphy said federal funding is just as critical for Arizona. Without it, even with approval of growers to initiate the program, Arizona would not start its eradication effort without assurance of that federal funding.

Bring Pima back

Eradicating the pink bollworm in Arizona could be a door opener as well as a money saver. Sharp and Murphy believe successful eradication could bring Pima acreage back to Arizona. It takes longer to produce Pima cotton and the longer the season, the more vulnerable cotton is to pinkies. That is one reason Arizona growers quit growing it. More than 90 percent of the nation's Pima cotton is now grown in pinkie-free San Joaquin Valley.

Sharp also believes it could enhance the efforts of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association to breed high quality, non-transgenic cottons for Arizona. The association three years ago initiated its own breeding program, contending that varieties offered to Arizona producers were not the best suited for the desert. Arizona has long been a major planting seed-producing state, and growers argue that the commercial varieties they must grow are more suited for other areas of the Cotton Belt.

“It already costs a lot of money to breed cotton and if you have to put a Bt gene in it as insurance to protect against pink bollworm so growers will plant it, that adds five years to the process,” said Sharp. “As Arizona cotton growers we cannot afford that.

“Arizona Cotton Growers program is trying to breed for quality — we may or may not obtain that,” said Sharp. “Regardless, if the pink bollworm were eliminated we would not have seed companies telling us what we can plant based on what genes were in the cotton. We would not have to pay for something (a gene) we do not need,” said the Roll, Ariz., grower.

“I do not think there are any risks going away from Bt cotton if we eradicate the pink bollworm,” said Sharp. “We do not have the other lepidopteran pests like they do in the Southeast and other parts of the Cotton Belt.”

Murphy and Sharp believe the probability of eradicating pink bollworm from Arizona is so close they can taste it.

“We took care of the boll weevil and the screwworm fly with a lot fewer tools than we have today 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