A new report by Tracie Cone of Associated Press is currently getting attention. The report documents that the shift of border inspections from USDA to Homeland Security was accompanied by a drop in the numbers of pest inspectors and the numbers of foreign pests intercepted. The numbers of interceptions dropped from over 81,000 in 2002 to under 59,000 in 2006. After complaints by Congress and threats to return pest inspection back to USDA from HS, the numbers of interceptions increased again.
Much of the problem was due to managers who were only concerned with human terrorist threats and were unfamiliar with the economic and environmental threats posed by exotic species. The lack of understanding led some supervisors to demote and punish employees for focusing on agricultural and biological pests. A large number of pest inspectors retired or exited the agency. The loss of expertise diminished the effectiveness.
People may complain about government. But people also complain when exotic pests invade the US, destroy their crops and landscapes and cause large economic damages. Preventing entry is the first priority, however less than 2 percent of imports can be effective. Early detection, is the next line of defense. If an exotic pest can be detected and eradicated before it spreads widely, the damage and costs can be contained. However, establishment of an invasive pest can lead to increased costs of managing the pest that recur on a yearly basis. These costs can be billions of dollars spent or in lost production. In the zeal to slash government spending, it is important to recognize that spending a small amount of government money on prevention may yield huge net savings to society.
When change like this happens, you hope people get it right the first time. But if they don’t, it’s not them who pay the price. It’s society that does. – Congressman Dennis Cardoza