(UPDATED COVERAGE, June 17, 6:14 p.m.) A plan to cut by two-thirds funding for a government program aimed at fighting pest and disease threats to crops is being met with resistance from the fresh produce industry.

President Obama’s 2010 budget proposes to reduce from $45 million to $15 million funding for the Plant Pest and Disease Management and Disaster Prevention program, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service.

Inclusion of the program in the 2008 Farm Bill had been a major goal of industry members of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance.

Under the program, instead of waiting for disaster to strike, pests and diseases could be stopped before they reach U.S. fields, said Kam Quarles, vice president of government relations and legislative affairs for Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

“The reason we thought it was so important is that this is a proactive, not a reactive, program,” he said. “We can ID the threats and push them offshore before they become a problem in the U.S.”

The financial burden also would be significantly less, Quarles said — for growers and for the government. Prior to passage of the program in the farm bill, growers’ only recourse was to approach Congress for emergency funds after their fields had been hit with disease or infestation.

The costs of those “reactive” actions are “significantly more” than the costs of prevention efforts such as those made possible by the new program, Quarles said.

Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland, agreed.

“The cost of fighting pests and diseases once they get here is astronomical,” Stuart said, citing California’s problems with light brown apple moth, Florida’s efforts to fight citrus canker and greening and other recent industry crises. “If we can invest money on the front end for detection and mitigation, we can save taxpayers money.”
 
Quarles spoke about the issue at an APHIS stakeholder meeting the week of June 8 in Riverdale, Md.

The two-day conference generated comments from industry along with local, state and federal officials to improve the program in the future.

An APHIS news release outlines six main goals of the Plant Pest and Disease Management and Disaster Prevention program:

  • Enhance plant pest/disease analysis and survey;
  • Target domestic inspection activities at vulnerable points in the safeguarding continuum;
  • Enhance and strengthen pest identification and technology;
  • Safeguard nursery production;
  • Conduct outreach and education to increase public understanding, acceptance, and support of plant pest and disease eradication and control efforts; and
  • Enhance mitigation capabilities

Despite the administration’s stance on the issue, Quarles is cautiously optimistic that Congress will overrule the president and keep funding for the program at its original level. In mid-June the House Agricultural Appropriations sub-committee green-lighted the program. It will now go to the House Appropriations Committee.

“Congress has the power of the purse,” Quarles said. “We think once we’re able to explain it to people, they’ll see the value in it. But there’s huge demand for dollars right now. We’re going to keep working it, and acting like we’re one touchdown behind.”

Stuart agreed that the sub-committee’s support was encouraging, but he said it was too soon to predict the fate of the full funding.

“In this environment you can’t count on anything until it’s over,” he said.