Osoyoos-based fruit moth control sterile release program seeks new opportunities
A program that protects apple and pear orchards by raising millions of moths at a facility in Osoyoos is a victim of its own success.
Located in the Buena Vista Industrial Park, the facility has raised millions of sterile codling moths for more than 20 years.
Codling moths produce a larva that is the worm in apples and pears and once had to be controlled with large quantities of pesticides.
When millions of sterile moths are released into the general moth population, they attempt to breed, but produce no offspring. Hence, there is no larvae to create worms inside apples and pears.
“At maximum production when we were at the peak of the program, there were probably close to 15 million codling moths reared per week,” explains Cara Nelson, general manager of the Okanagan-Kootenay Sterile Insect Release Program (SIR). “Now we’re down to about five million because of less need.”
The volume of pesticides used per acre against codling moths has also dropped about 90 per cent since 1991 and there has been more than a 90-per-cent reduction in the level of codling moths in the valley, SIR says.
Once it was necessary to spray for codling moths three or more times a season.
Today, despite the odd hot spot, one spraying every four years is average, Nelson said.
The program, Nelson stresses, is not an eradication program, but is a suppression program. If the Osoyoos facility stopped producing sterile moths, the population would rebound and the pest could re-infest the entire area.
The SIR board is now looking into other options for the surplus capacity in Osoyoos, including selling sterile moths to other parts of the world, Nelson said.
This was among the topics discussed when a small but prestigious group of specialists in the science of insect control came to Kelowna for a week-long meeting June 2 to 6 and then some stayed on last week.
“Some of the experts stayed on and they’re doing a review of our program, an external review, so they’re helping us to look at areas that we can improve,” said Nelson. “Finding opportunities for a new direction forward would be part of it – how can we maximize the facility, because it’s a very valuable asset for the program.”
You may be wondering how millions of moths are sterilized and if you’re picturing each of them getting a vasectomy, you would be wrong. In fact, as Nelson explains, the moths are sterilized with irradiation.
Taxpayers of the four regional districts from Osoyoos to the Columbia-Shuswap fund the program, Nelson said, with general taxpayers covering about 60 per cent. The cost to taxpayers in Kelowna, where property assessments are the highest, is about $11 per year on an average property. Apple and pear growers who pay $140 per planted acre pay the remainder.
There is no funding currently from the federal or provincial governments, although those governments contributed to the initial start-up of the facility in the 1990s.
The program has a small administrative staff based in Kelowna, but most of the 25 full-time staff is based at the facility in Osoyoos, Nelson said. The seasonal staff brings the total to about 65 employees.
“When you have any kind of asset like that where you have production, it’s a fixed cost,” Nelson explained. “So the higher your production, the less your costs are spread over the entire production. Because we don’t require as many sterile insects now, because we have such control, there are more opportunities for the facility.”
The first choice would be to produce more moths for other markets, Nelson said, adding that by partnering with southern hemisphere countries, whose summers are during our winters, moths could be exported during the slow season here.
The same approach could also be used for other insects, she said. This could include breeding sterile insects to help control pests associated with other fruit industries such as cherries and grapes, which could affect this region more as climate changes.
“Our 20 years of using an area-wide approach to controlling the devastating pest of apples and pears, the codling moth, is envied around the world,” said Nelson, noting that the recent meetings drew specialists from the U.S., Europe, China, Malaysia, Chile, Tunisia and South Africa. “The world wants to know about what we’re doing and about how we’ve been so successful at reducing the amount of pesticides used in this valley.”