By JOE FRIES
Established three decades ago to help Okanagan orchardists with pest control, the Sterile Insect Release program is now set to fly far beyond the region.
Based at a facility in Osoyoos, the SIR program raises sterile codling moths, which are released and mate with wild codling moths, thereby reducing the population of the pest, which devours tree fruits at great cost to local farmers.
As an added bonus, farmers have used 96 per cent less pesticides, while the coddling moth population has been reduced by 94 per cent, according to the program’s numbers
But as a result of that success, and a reduction in apple acreage, the SIR facility now finds itself with excess production capacity.
“It has a certain number of fixed costs, so what’s always been batted about is: Wouldn’t it be great if we were able to capitalize on some of that unused capacity?” acting general manager Melissa Tesche last week told the board of the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen.
“And thanks to advances in the desire for organic coddling moth control around the world, particularly in Washington, we’re starting to see that that market is actually there.”
The market is also in New Zealand, where the federal government recently completed a four-year trial using the bugs from Osoyoos.
“Once a week we box them up, they go on a plane Wednesday morning from Penticton, they are in a field in New Zealand by their Saturday morning – which is our Friday afternoon – and they’re in mint condition,” said Ms. Tesche.
However, expanding beyond supplying such small-scale trials requires approval from the four regional districts that created the SIR Program, in particular the ability to take on liability in the form of sales contracts for future production.
That approval came Thursday from the RDOS board, when it became the last of the districts to sign off on the change.
“I can’t help but think you’ve maybe even undersold this a little bit in the sense that over 30 years this project has been hugely successful in setting out what it was intended to do in terms of a reduction in coddling moths and pesticides,” said Michael Brydon, the director for Area F (West Bench), who recommended exploring a spin-off of the entire operation to the private sector.
Ms. Tesche cautioned, however, that such privatization would likely require a scale-up of production that can’t be rushed.
“The whole success of our program depends on the quality of our product – and we’re not producing widgets where you can just build a second factory and expand,” she said.
“Everything depends entirely on the quality of moth that we put out in the field, because they have to be sterile yet still sexy to the wild moths that are out there.”