Now that the judge has ruled and Kauai's pesticide/GMO regulatory law, Bill 2491/Ordinance 960 is dead, where to from here? Especially since the community is polarized, and ideology dies hard.
The always thoughtful Luke Evslin, who has defended genetic modification while supporting the “original intent behind 2491” (though I'm no longer clear exactly what that was), weighed in last week on his blog, Ka Wae:
As we move forward, it’s important to not let extremists from either side control the conversation and widen the rhetorical divide. There is a vast middle ground (where I believe that the majority of Kaua’i citizens are) that believes that some type of pesticide regulation is needed and acknowledges the related fact that small scale local agriculture is in a precipitous decline.
Allan Parachini also weighed in with a guest editorial in The Garden Island that outlined eight steps for moving forward, and ended with:
To be sure, this prescription foresees continuation of a difficult political debate on our island. But it is a debate we must now take to its conclusion.
The Hawaii Farm Bureau, meanwhile, is launching a $400,000 public relations blitz aimed at countering the anti-GMO movement by building support for GMOs and agriculture overall. Civil Beat reports that the campaign will cost nearly half the group's annual revenue, and employ such tactics as temporary tattoos for schoolchildren, sponsoring face-painting at community gatherings, running ads on popular TV shows and publishing op-ed pieces in newspapers.
Both Allan and Luke met immediate resistance from “antis.” Ashley Lukens of the Center for Food Safety, which has been doing its own media blitz, similarly shot down the Farm Bureau plan with a canned reply:
“My sense is that the community is going to see through this because it doesn’t in any way address the concerns that the largest chemical companies in the world use Hawaii as the outdoor laboratory.”
Yes, the Farm Bureau campaign is likely to be seen as the PR push that is. But still, there is something valid and meaningful in the rationale behind the campaign, as articulated by HFB President Chris Manfredi:
“Agriculture in Hawaii and across the nation is under attack. Across the nation, farmers and ranchers have been caught off guard by extremist activists that will stop at nothing to realize their utopian, misinformed and unsustainable vision of how you should farm.”
We've got a lot of different issues — farming methodology, pesticide concerns, GMOs, land use policies, home rule, ag land preservation and prices, aging farmers and island food self-sufficiency — all scrambled together, scorched with inflammatory rhetoric and manipulated by political opportunists at the local and international level.
To get out of this mess, I agree wholeheartedly with Luke and Allan that we need to move this discussion to the middle and eschew extremism. Even Councilman Gary Hooser, who introduced Bill 2491, recently admitted:
“No question, in the heat of the moment, both sides kinda stretched the conversation a little too far.”
We also need to separate out the issues and address them individually, while also looking at the big picture, because of course they're all related. But we're not going to have any meaningful discussions about any of these topics if we focus only on the seed companies as either demon or savior. They are one player — a big player, granted, but just one player. They aren't the only entities using pesticides. And if they disappear, small organic farms will not suddenly spring up in their place.
We also need to get realistic about what is possible — politically, legally, economically and socially.
A few days ago, I heard Marghee Maupin, a westside Kauai nurse practitioner who is sincerely convinced her patients are suffering from pesticide harm, express her frustration over what she views as the state's failure to respond to her concerns:
My question is not whether it's legal or illegal, but is it healthy?
That, to me, seems to sum up the crux of the communication breakdown and political strategy failure on Kauai, and elsewhere across the state, in regard to pesticides and GMOs.
Folks are asking the state and county to address their health concerns and fears by banning products and stopping practices that are approved, allowed and permitted by the federal government. And just as Magistrate Judge Barry Kurren determined that county laws are pre-empted in areas where the state has authority, state laws are similarly subordinate to federal laws.
The county has the power to limit pesticide use on its parks and roadways. The state has the power to determine if local pesticide practices are harming public health, just as it has the power to ascertain whether pesticides are polluting streams and nearshore areas, especially during heavy rain runoff.
These are the actions that people can push for if they want to “stop poisoning paradise” and quantify harm. The state and counties do not have the power to ban atrazine, kick out the seed companies, eliminate GMOs or stop licensed pesticide applicators from applying a product in accordance with standards that have been set at the federal level.
In other words, you can't ignore the issue of whether it's legal or illegal, and focus only on whether it's healthy, unless you are addressing your comments to the feds, who make that determination. The state doesn't set the allowable level of exposure to any pesticide, or decide whether that exposure is healthy.
If you want to argue that question in any meaningful way, it needs to be done at the federal level.
To keep hashing it out locally does nothing but heat up the rhetoric and mislead people into believing state and county governments can do things that are not within their scope of power, and frustrating them when they discover the inevitable limitations.
As Kauai moves forward, it's going to be difficult to re-establish relationships. Many people with a lot to add in discussions on agriculture feel burned by the 2491 battle, but we need their expertise. Just as we need people who can see all sides of an issue, like Luke Evslin. Those who have advocated extremist, intolerant views should not be invited to the table.
We don't need more litigation, whether it's appealing the 960 decision or suing the state. We don't need short-sighted political responses with long-term ramifications, like revisions in agricultural taxes. And we don't need politicians who are using ag as a platform, and simplifying what is a multi-layered issue.
Gary recently said that he supports “ranching and other sustainable ag. Clean, grass-fed beef – we can do that. We have the pasture land available. Unfortunately, the landowners are drawn to the high rent of seed companies and don't want to tie up land with ranchers. Ranchers can't get longterm leases. That's an issue I plan on digging into.”
I was blogging about ranchers — and small farmers — losing their short-term leases to the higher-paying seed companies back in 2011, but no one seemed especially interested. Unless farming is subsidized, or the state/county make land available, private landowners are going to lease to the highest bidder.
I also wrote a piece for Honolulu Weekly in October 2011 about the challenges facing beef, pork and chicken producers statewide that is still relevant today. Land and leases are only one part of the equation. Processing, economies of scale, marketing, distribution, imported feed costs and tiny profit margins are also major factors limiting production.
And given the response to Hawaii Dairy Farms — a subsidized venture that doesn't even need to worry about the bottom line — are Kauai residents likely to support more livestock, with its associated waste and slaughterhouses?
We don't need any more deceptive language. Gary recently said, in regard to Ordinance 960:
We're not restricting anybody's agriculture. We're just asking for disclosure and buffers. Even the agrochemical companies it would not restrict their activities at all.
So long as the companies are prohibited from growing any crops — even organics — in the buffer zones, that's simply not true. And let's get real: the whole intent of disclosure and buffer zones is to restrict activities that some folks believe are bad.
We really don't need any more propaganda/PR, whether it's by Monsanto, Hawaii SEED, the Babes, or Hawaii Farm Bureau. How about some honest, accurate information? I don't think that's likely, or even possible, with the first three, but I'd love to see HFB put its $400,000 into education, rather than PR. There is a distinct difference between the two, and it starts with intention.
In the meantime, there's an election coming up. Vote wisely, and avoid single-issue politics and politicians. Agriculture and food issues are far too complex for simplistic, jingoistic approaches, even if they're well-intentioned, and especially when they aren't.