Researchers at Pennsylvania State University say that if the spotted lanternfly infestation spreads across the entire state, it could drain an estimated $324 million from the economy annually and cost 2,800 jobs because of the fecund pests’ voracious hunger for trees and valuable crops.
In an even more severe scenario, the authors from the university’s College of Agricultural Sciences calculated that the invasive species could cause up to $554 million annually in damages and a loss of 5,000 jobs if not contained, according to a report funded by an arm of the General Assembly.
The university says the study is the first of its kind to look at the financial impact of the spotted lanternfly, which devours ornamental plants, trees, and other vegetation.
Currently, the researchers say, the insect is causing $50 million a year in damages and the loss of 484 jobs in the southeastern part of the state. The spotted lanternfly is present in Philadelphia and counties that surround it.
“Even if the worst-case scenario doesn’t come to pass, the spotted lanternfly already has inflicted millions of dollars in damage to our state’s agriculture and forestry industries,” said Jayson Harper, professor of agricultural economics and director of Penn State’s Fruit Research and Extension Center.
Harper said the findings should be a wake-up call for federal and state agricultural departments, legislators, and industries to stop the spread.
The spotted lanternfly, which came from Asia, was first found in the United States in 2014 in Berks County. It is now present in 14 counties, including Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery, all of which are under a state quarantine.
The team of researchers modeled three scenarios using data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and projected how far the lanternfly might spread in a limited way or if it ends up nesting in all 67 counties.
The bug is hard to stop because it hitchhikes in wheel wells and other modes of transportation when goods are shipped. Businesses are under pressure from the state to check for signs of the spotted lanternfly on vehicles.
The worst-hit agricultural sectors: nursery operators, fruit growers, and Christmas tree farms.
But researchers caution they haven’t fully looked at the impact the spotted lanternfly has on its hosts and may cause “considerable” damage to forests, especially to tree species such as soft maple, oak and black walnut.
The study said it would cost millions more to remove host and food sources including Tree of Heaven, or Ailanthus altissima, a favorite of the lanternfly. Tree of Heaven is an invasive species found growing just about everywhere, including along roads, and through gaps in sidewalks. Because the tree grows so easily, even in harsh urban environments, it helps foster the spread of the pests.
Penn State and its Extension, the USDA, and state Department of Agriculture have a joint program in place to control and contain the spread.