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Beating the $22 Billion Bug

By Kim Kaplan
February 7, 2003

Eradication of the scourge of the South--better known as the boll weevil--is now a major success, thanks in large part to research from the Agricultural Research Service.

The boll weevil wreaked havoc on the American cotton industry, with yield losses and control costs totaling more than $22 billion since its 1892 arrival in the United States.

As boll weevils spread, they forced radical economic and social changes in areas that had been almost completely dependent on cotton production. Many experts consider the boll weevil second only to the Civil War as an agent of change in the South.

For example, the year before boll weevils marched into Georgia in 1915, the state produced 2.8 million bales of cotton. Ten years later, annual production was 600,000 bales. By 1983, it was down to 112,000 bales. A decade after joining the eradication program, Georgia cotton production rebounded to 1.66 million bales in 2000. The Georgia cotton industry, including farms, gins, warehouses, cottonseed oil mills and textile mills, now provides 53,000 jobs and an overall economic impact of more than $3 billion each year.

There have also been environmental benefits, as eradication has allowed cotton growers to reduce as many as 15 pesticide applications a season to just one or two.

Today, the boll weevil has been virtually eliminated from more than 6 million acres, and active eradication is in various stages of completion on more than 9 million additional acres in 17 U.S. states and in northern Mexico.

Hope for stopping the boll weevil had been bleak until the 1970s, when ARS research began to create needed tools. ARS developed an essential pheromone lure and trap, along with basic biological information about the pest.

Then ARS helped assemble the research--from ARS and from universities, state experiment stations, extension agents and many others--into an areawide pest eradication model.

The success story of boll weevil eradication was built on cooperation between government research and regulatory agencies, especially ARS and USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which has regulatory responsibility for the eradication program--along with universities, industry, states and growers. Read more about it in the February issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief research agency.