Feds at Work: Created a plan to eradicate a pest destroying cotton crops
The U.S. is the first and only country to eradicate the pink bollworm, saving cotton growers in four states tens of millions of dollars annually
For most of the past 100 years, the pink bollworm caused major damage to cotton crops in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas, feasting on cotton bolls, shrinking plant yields and costing American growers tens of millions of dollars a year in lost cotton. Cumulatively, farmers spent a billion-plus dollars on pest control over three decades.
But farmers can now wash their hands of the insidious pest. As of October 2018, the pink bollworm was officially eradicated. The Department of Agriculture lifted the quarantine restricting the movement across state lines of cotton plants, farm machinery and other “host materials” potentially harboring the insect.
The eradication was the crowning achievement for Osama El-Lissy, deputy administrator of USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS. He worked for decades on eradication efforts, making the United States the first and only country to wipe out the pink bollworm.
“He always had his eye on the prize,” said Mary Palm, director of APHIS’ Plant Protection and Quarantine program, or PPQ.
“Eradication of something, especially a major pest, never happens,” said Karen Maguylo, PPQ’s national policy manager for cotton.
El-Lissy had to persuade farmers, the private sector and public officials in two countries and four states to collaborate to rid cotton fields of the insect.
He also had to convince skeptical growers eradication was even possible. And he had to earn farmers’ trust so competing growers would tackle the problem together. Their livelihoods were at stake.
There were other unique challenges. Subject matter experts publicly expressed doubt that eradication was possible. Local communities were concerned because workers would set up traps around homes, and crop dusters would fly at low altitude over schools and day care centers, releasing millions of sterilized moths to prevent egg hatching and reduce the future population of the insect, El-Lissy said.
The key to success was El-Lissy’s plan for an area-wide approach, Maguylo said. Growers, the government and industry all had a role, from planting genetically engineered, resistant cotton to coordinating when to mow down cotton stalks, a major insect breeding ground.
It was also critical that Mexico establish an eradication program. El-Lissy encouraged officials there to set one up and now, the nearest pink bollworm is 400 miles south of the Texas border.
Earlier in his career, El-Lissy worked in the private sector managing large pest control and eradication programs, and on boll weevil eradication in two states. In Texas, he led one of the largest boll weevil eradication programs in the world, affecting about four million acres of cotton and several thousand producers and landowners, according to the USDA.
He developed a management structure using geographic information systems, database management, infestation-monitoring traps, and practices for documenting and downloading timely information for on-the-spot management decisions, said Don Parker, the National Cotton Council’s manager of integrated pest management.
“That program ended up being so good, just about everybody adopted it,” to monitor pests, Parker said. Growers in three states even voted to regulate themselves via referenda and paid for most of the eradication program’s costs.
El-Lissy, who came to the U.S. from Egypt in the early 1980s, is gratified to contribute to his adopted country. “I am so grateful to America. That’s why I work as hard as I can every day to pay back a portion of what I’ve gotten since my arrival,” he said.
“Only government can work across states, across countries, to produce the benefits and the value that society can realize.”
Osama El-Lissy is one of 26 finalists for the 2019 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, presented annually by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service to celebrate employees who have made significant contributions to our nation’s health, safety and prosperity.
Help share their stories using #Sammies2019 and submit your 2020 nominations now.