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. “You can count on one hand the number of times it has happened.”
During the long slog toward that achievement, 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 that eradication was even possible. And he had to earn farmers’ trust so competing growers would tackle the problem “as a unified force rather than individually,” Maguylo said. Their livelihoods were at stake.
“It’s not a small feat if you’ve ever tried to get a lot of growers to agree to one thing, especially with competing states and competing management styles,” Maguylo added.
There were other unique challenges. Subject matter experts publicly expressed doubt that eradication was possible. And 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.
“Osama has been a really strong leader of this cooperative effort,” said Michael Gregoire, associate administrator of APHIS. “He sets clear goals and high expectations for people and stays focused on getting results.” After dealing with the pest for so long, cotton growers now have lower expenses and reduced losses, Gregoire added.
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.
There, 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 improve their monitoring capabilities for boll weevil and pink bollworm eradication,” Parker said. Growers in three states even voted to regulate themselves via referenda and paid for most of the eradication program’s costs.
“That’s a pretty big challenge to find something that looks valuable enough that collectively the producers will impose restrictions on themselves to see the fruition of it,” Parker said.
Palm said, “Mr. El-Lissy is a prime example of how one person’s vision, hard work, innovation and collaborative approach can have a huge impact on the future of an iconic U.S. industry.” Without his relentless advocacy, “the pink bollworm would still be devastating the U.S. cotton industry.”
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 eventually chose federal service. “The role is broader, and the impact is much bigger,” El-Lissy said.
“Only government can work across states, across countries, to produce the benefits and the value that society can realize,” he added. “It really is a very noble mission.” He said he tells employees and colleagues they “should feel really good about what we do.