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A Light Shake but No Stirring : Pete Wilson leaves Medfly portfolio largely with spray-happy state agency

December 09, 1990

Gov.-elect Pete Wilson has taken a step--albeit a tiny one--toward distancing the state Department of Food and Agriculture from some decisions having to do with pesticides. But Wilson's moves so far have provided insufficient comfort to urban residents worried about future applications of the controversial pesticide malathion.

Wilson announced recently that he intended to retain--subject to uncertain Senate confirmation--Henry Voss as director of the state Department of Food and Agriculture. Voss, who was first appointed by Gov. George Deukmejian, is also a past president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, a key agricultural lobbying organization. Voss was in charge of the department during the height of the 1989-90 Mediterranean fruit fly infestation, when Southern California was regularly blanketed with the pesticide. He is closely associated with what malathion critics call the spray-first-ask-questions-later school.

To take some of the sting out of Voss' reappointment--which Wilson surely knew would please Voss' fellow farmers but disturb many urban residents--the governor-elect said that a new state environmental protection agency would take over the regulation of pesticides. However, aides suggest that the Food and Agriculture Department still would determine when malathion spraying is deemed necessary in order to "eradicate" a pest infestation. The difference, Wilson aides say, is that scientific and medical questions about dosage and safety of pesticides will be answered by experts in the new environmental agency, not by Food and Agriculture employees who may well have a conflict of interest.

That's fine, as far as it goes. But the distinction may be one without a difference. Whether a pesticide expert justifying the use of malathion worked for the state EPA or for the department of Food and Agriculture would make no practical difference to the millions fundamentally opposed to the application of aerial pesticides. The tremendous controversy over malathion spraying this year revealed not only a deep distrust of the Food and Agriculture Department, but of state government in general.

The symbolism of some separation of pesticide duties is welcome. But the governor needs to make more meaningful gestures to show urban residents that he means to spread the grief around--including endorsing proposals that agriculture directly bear more of the costs of battling the Medfly and other pests.

As Wilson works out details of his reorganization, he must keep in mind that Southern California residents need reassurance that the state will not routinely resort to aerial malathion spraying as a cure for those inevitable future Medfly infestations.

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