Lucy Neely: The European Grapevine Moth in Mendocino County


The story of the European Grapevine Moth (EGVM) in Mendocino County demonstrates the risks inherent in globalized agriculture and in monocropping Mendocino County in grapes. Conversely, it shows the advantages of a local, diversified food system’s greater resistance to pests, disease, and market fluctuation. It provides a challenging exercise in reconciling the reality of grapes with the idealism of a local food system.

When I first heard about the EGVM in April, my gut reaction was, “That’s what we get for monocropping the county,” and I didn’t think much more about it. But I became interested in the EGVM when I heard that work at the County Department of Agriculture had been consumed by the moth, while I heard nothing of grapes being consumed by the moth.

To understand this phenomenon, I talked to Tony Linegar, Agriculture Commissioner of Mendocino County.

“I’ve been eating, breathing, sleeping the EGVM,” Tony declares. “We’re all working extra hours.” So this moth must be bad! Really harming the crops? Well, not exactly. 1,400 traps were set in Mendocino County to survey the moth’s presence. The traps yielded 35 moths, all of them in the Ukiah Valley. By comparison, Napa County’s traps turned up 100,000 moths.

Why does this moth merit so much attention if it isn’t destroying crops? “If you don’t treat for it, it could take your whole crop,” Linegar says. And since grapes are the biggest (legal) economy in Mendocino County, if that whole crop was taken, we could be belly up. So the Department of Agriculture has taken the necessary steps to control the moth and save Mendocino’s economy. These steps include spraying grapes with pesticides, mating disruption, and quarantine. All this is “extra work and extra costs” for everyone.

EGVM has the potential to wreak havoc on grape crops in Mendocino County, but it’s easy to kill with the proper attention. For now, the moth is a big hassle and a little ominous, and it doesn’t look like the hassle or the threat are going away, since nearby Napa will be infected for the foreseeable future.

So what lessons can be gleaned from the EGVM in Mendocino County? First, there’s monocropping. When I asked Tony if the monocropping of Mendocino County in grapes makes him nervous, referring to the vulnerability it creates to pests and disease, he paused and replied “a little bit,” but went on to say that what concerns him more about monocropping is the possibility of the grape market taking a dive, as it could.

The EGVM also shows us the ramifications of a globalized agriculture. The moth originally spread from Europe to California by the cross-continental transportation of contaminated materials, and from Napa to Mendocino County the same way. A more localized agriculture would keep imports and exports closer to home and wouldn’t spread pests like the EGVM as readily. I asked Tony if he thought a more localized agriculture would be less prone to disease and pest epidemics. Without hesitating, “Oh, absolutely.” He added that the EGVM illustrates the “genius of biodynamic agriculture,” where a farm is considered a holistic organism and treated as a closed system, less vulnerable to imported pests and diseases.

This little moth represents a choice we get to make. Grapes grow well in Mendocino County and they make money, but do we want to exploit this advantage to compete in a hyper-consolidated global market to the extent that the County is increasingly monocropped and left vulnerable to the whims of the market and the caprice of insects? Consciously or not, that’s what we are doing. An agriculture that is more diversified and localized ultimately affords Mendocino County a more secure economy, monetarily and in terms of food production, but creating such an economy would require the citizens of Mendocino County to bring a great deal of consciousness to bear on their decision making process. It wouldn’t be easy, but it’s something to chew on.
See also Grapevine Moth in Mendo –  John Cesano