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Internet Propels Invasive Species

Online sales an unregulated danger to agriculture

Cash on the barrelhead, the trade raged for 50 days and nights. In 2015, European researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich used an online tracking platform to watch as plant species were sold across the Internet. Conclusion? Invasive species are riding a buck-wild Trojan horse in cyberspace.

Ten websites, 50 days and 2,625 plant species for sale at the click of a button. Specimens were sold in 55 different countries spread across the globe. Taken alone, that’s a singular recipe for trouble, but it gets worse. Of the 2,625 species up for grabs, 510 were invasive. Hang on for the kicker. Out of the 510 invasive examples, 35 are on the International Union for Conservation Nature’s 100 worst invasive species list.

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The amount of invasives sold online is certainly much higher than the study showed. Why? Tracking of plants was recorded solely by scientific name, not common name. The numbers are stark enough to make weed scientists and botanists worried. The implications of the study don’t bode well for U.S. agriculture either.

The Internet has severely complicated the fight against invasive species, says Karan Rawlins, invasive species coordinator, Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health, University of Georgia. 

Direct legislation against the importation of particular plants or species isn’t an absolute safeguard, she contends. Rawlins roams the front lines of invasive species combat and has a finger on the pulse of the traffic flow. “You can buy anything on the Internet; legality is no boundary,” she says.

Rawlins cites cogongrass as a glaring example. It can be ordered online as red baron, yet is globally acknowledged as one of the most prolific invasive weeds. Cogongrass is listed as a federal noxious weed, but online buyers slip under the radar. 

“I push the need for more education of the public,” Rawlins says. “I also want to be clear: Legislation is needed, but it’s just not there yet and will never be the whole solution.” 

The Internet has merely compounded a deeply rooted problem for agriculture. The invasive species lid on Pandora’s box has been pulled back repeatedly for decades. The list of invasive species intentionally or accidentally brought in to the U.S. is dizzying and numbers in the tens of thousands—cheatgrass in the West; zebra mussels and Asian carp in the North; hydrilla and Asian citrus psyllid in Florida; Japanese climbing fern in Georgia; emerald ash borer in the Northeast; or feral hogs, fire ants and kudzu in the South. Each species comes with its own horror story of transport, introduction and spread.

Where to dole out responsibility? Everywhere and everyone, Rawlins says. Government, universities, agriculture, trade organizations, the green industry and individual citizens all get a piece of the blame.  

“Before we recognized the issues, we all brought in plants, animals and insects in an accidental or deliberate manner,” she says. “I loved the mimosa tree in my grandma’s backyard, but I also know it hurts farming and ecosystems. People want to replicate a pretty tree—[it’s] human nature despite the consequences.”

And what of the financial costs? Precise tallies are extremely difficult to measure, depending on study and extrapolation of data, but the estimates are staggering, ranging from $120 billion to $300 billion. In addition, most estimates are based on removal and prevention. But tack on ecosystem damage through flooding, mangrove and cane break loss, and overall habitat destruction, and the dollar amount rockets far higher.

The invasive problem hits all facets of modern agriculture, says Ryan Yates, director of congressional relations, American Farm Bureau Federation, including rangelands, livestock, industrial timber, row crop farming, waterways, aquaculture and many more sectors. “We see agriculture affected by the harmful impact of invasive species. Every farming region is unique, but this is not a regional threat because everyone gets hit,” he notes.

Yates emphasizes prevention by adherence to state best management practices and says two bills on the near-horizon deal directly with invasive species at the federal level. “HR1485 in the House and S2240 in the Senate are pieces of companion legislation to better allocate federal resources in spending tax dollars more effectively at the local level to fight the spread of invasive species,” he says.

Ringing invasive alarm bells beyond the starting gate is often an exercise in futility. Lirong Liu, assistant professor of economics, Texas A&M University–Commerce, cites her research with Brian Piper, an economist with Research and Planning Consultants, in Austin, Texas, on red streaked leafhopper (RSL). 

RSL, which originated in Asia, is found in grasses close to Louisiana’s sugarcane region and carries 100% crop loss potential. Liu believes without prevention, RSL’s economic impact could reach $71 million within five years. However, Liu’s 25-year projection is far more numbing. Her forecast combines RSL economic impact with the effect on employment and tax revenue. “Without early prevention, the total annual leafhopper impact could reach $956 million after 25 years,” Liu says.

Echoing Rawlins, Liu says online trade has changed the dynamics of invasive species control. “The Internet makes invasive species prevention so much tougher. International trade has always been partially responsible for invasive species introduction. Internet sales are unfortunately a new form of international trade, but the transactions are between individuals and almost impossible to regulate.”

Utilities, forestry, agriculture and many other industries all pay billions each year to manage invasive threats, and those costs are passed to customers. Fighting invasive species takes massive financial resources, reasonable legislation and cooperation at all levels, Rawlins says. “It’s very difficult to get the horticulture and nursery industries to sit down at the table because that’s their bread and butter and how they support their families.”

The Internet is a constantly shifting communications highway, ideal for unregulated invasive species trading. Invasive specimens of all sorts are changing hands, and it’s a fair bet to assume the Swiss study numbers are a mere drop in the bucket. The nature of the online beast also shows when a traffic hole opens, volume almost invariably tends to increase.

“Online trade isn’t simply a significant management and prevention risk to agriculture because it’s about what invasive species are here now,” Yates adds. “Online trade is a risk to agriculture because it’s about what’s coming in the future.” 

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