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  No Winners in the War Against 'Aliens'
Main article | The 'Aliens' in Singapore | No Winners in War against 'Aliens'

Alien introductions that can cause mayhem among the local plant and animal populations must be controlled by governments. Sounds easy! But it's far from easy to stop aliens that can ride the wind and sail the seass or piggyback on humans. Betty L Khoo reports on how Australia attempts to control alien infestations.

While Australia, a major food producing country, was ready to welcome Asian fruit species of mango, banana and papaya (which it now exports back to Asia), it was of course unprepared for the flies that inevitably follow the fruit. (The flies sting the fruit and lay their eggs just under its skin).

In Asia's traditional backyard orchards, fruit flies are part and parcel of the garden. One expects to lose some fruits to fruit flies, bats and birds. Or, if one had the time, an effective way to protect maturing fruit was to wrap them individually with newspaper. But villagers are also used to cutting off the rotten or worm infested part of the fruit and happily eating the rest. Such practices are of course not acceptable to the horticulture industry of countries like Australia and the lengths they go to combat the fruit fly are costly, often absurd and futile.

Here are two recent examples of the war being waged against the fruit fly. When the papaya fruit fly (which also infests fruits like banana and mango), was discovered in the state of Queensland about three years ago, panic set in. Quarantine controls were thrown up to try and prevent the spread across the border. (As some aliens cross even oceans, one can imagine how silly it is to try and stop winged insects from crossing state boundaries). So, no fruit could be moved out of Queensland without being dipped in poisons, by handlers wearing masks and gloves, to kill the fruit fly larvae. (All fruits were dipped regardless of whether there was larvae in it or not). Mind you, all this poisoned fruit would have already been routinely doused with pesticides before being picked, this dipping requirement was an extra dose of poison, after the fruit had been picked!).

Organic growers who had been growing their fruit without chemicals were anguished! One of them (Maurice Franklin of Mission Beach) refused to poison his bananas and after suffering devastating losses, sold his fresh bananas in the local market and dried the rest.

Then, in December 1997, another Asian fruit fly was found, this time around Darwin in the Northern Territory (NT) of Australia. Immediately quarantine controls were set up not only at air and seaports but at various checkpoints in the Territory, prohibiting the free movement of all fruits and certain vegetables. An example of how absurd the controls can get occurred when the town of Katherine, also in the NT, was flooded in March of this year and people in Darwin (some 300 kms away) wanted to send them some garden-fresh food aid. They were warned that only fruit and vegetables that had been bought in supermarkets and could therefore be bagged, sealed and certified could be sent down. The irony was that virtually all of the 'fresh' fruit and veg in the supermarkets of Darwin had been trucked up from the southern part of Australia on the main trunk road that runs through Katherine (which was cut for almost a week at the height of the floods). The 'fresh' fruit and veg in supermarkets are considered safe from fruit fly infestation because they were conventionally grown and presumably doused with sufficient chemicals at every stage. Whether these multiple poisons are safe for humans is clearly not a consideration for those enforcing these quarantine controls.

Even more absurd and intrusive was the way the relevant government authorities moved in with their traps, masks and chemical spray gear into every Darwin household that had mango trees (even one tree) in their backyard. These householders, their trees (and living spaces), were subjected to pesticide sprays whether they liked it or not! In trying to contain the Asian fruitfly, one does not know how many mega tonnes of poisons were used. How 'successful' has this campaign been, again we don't really know, it's still on-going in the NT. The government has pledged A$7 million to wage this battle! "It's ridiculous when the control of the fruit fly can be far more safely, effectively and cheaply waged by using Neem baits hung in the mango trees", said one organic' certified Darwin mango grower.

What we do know (as fact) is that people (residents and farmers) have inhaled this poison and people (consumers) have eaten the fruits impregnated with this poison. This poisoned fruit (neatly bagged and sealed) continues to be exported back to those Asian countries still affluent enough to buy them. What we also know is that experts in the area of nutritional and environmental health have already said that the underlying cause of cancer and many diseases today are the industrial and agricultural poisons in soils, water and air (Dr Ian Brighthope, President of the Australasian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine).

What we in Singapore must learn from Australia's continuing battle with alien introductions like the Asian fruit fly is that there are no winners in this war. Before we begin waging futile costly battles we must ask if the outcomes could be far worse than the 'problem'. In the case of managing fruit flies and other so-called 'pests', organic farmers all know that leaving enough nature strips/ areas, maintaining healthy organic soils, and thereby healthy plants and growing a diversity of plants instead of one or two crops, are much better ways than trying to kill the fly and humans along with it.

Betty is the Northern Territory representative of the Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association of Australia Inc.

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