The boll weevil? Beaten back. Tropical fruit flies? Buzz off. Fever ticks on cattle? Killed. Which is the same thing that will happen to the Kika de la Garza Subtropical Agricultural Research Center in Weslaco, the organization that conducts the important work that helps keep those invasive pests at bay. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, facing steep cuts, pulled the plug on the center.
“[A]ll involved, including the USDA’s Agriculture Research Service that is directing the closure, agree critical missions for food safety and crop protection in a strategically located subtropical U.S.-Mexico border zone may be lost — a steep price to pay for the approximately $10 million in annual savings,” Lynn Brezosky wrote in the San Antonio Express-News.
The Center is located only twelve miles from the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge, the nation’s second largest port of entry for foreign produce and “the largest port of entry for commercial and contraband mangos, citrus, guavas and avocados,” according to Logan Hawkes of Southwest Farm Press.
When U.S. customs agents discover produce at border checkpoints infected by disease or pests, it is the USDA scientists from the research center who step in to investigate further, Brezosky wrote. The center’s contributions to food science over the years have been major, according to Hawkes, who writes:
Known for such pioneering work as boll weevil eradication in cotton, fever tick eradication in cattle, control and eradication of invading tropical fruit flies, citrus greening and zebra chip research, the USDA-ARS Kika de la Garza Research Center in Weslaco is the only facility on the U.S. mainland that researches quarantine issues related to tropical pests, and one of only four that does work on honey bees.
In 1990, the center’s scientists also trapped and studied a swarm of Africanized honeybees that buzzed across the border, Brezosky wrote.
More than thirty USDA scientists and eighty support staff work at the research center, which opened in 1931. These scientists collaborate closely with their Mexican counterparts at a center located across the border less than an hour away.
The border center is one of 259 domestic facilities that will close due to the budget cuts, saving the USDA $150 million each year. But shifting the research to another region won’t cut it, according to entomologist Robert Mangan, the center’s acting director. “Putting us up north in some lab that works on field crops is not going to get that work done,” Mangan told Brezosky.
While the center is not expected to close until June, research there has already ground to a halt. “All research activity has stopped and we have already furloughed some 60 employees from the Center,” Mangan told Hawkes of Southwest Farm Press.
U.S. representative Ruben Hinojosa, of Mercedes, is fighting to save the center, which he told the Houston Chronicle has a history in “agriculture experiments and in the safety of our food that makes this center one of the most notable and important operations in our country.” Brezosky pointed out that Hinojosa voted for the bill last fall that contained the USDA cuts along with the budgets of several other federal agencies.