Much of the testimony was passionate and surprisingly compelling, and some interesting information came to light.
For instance, Dr. Richard Goding, an orthopedic surgeon, said he works all around the island, and in discussions with other physicians, it appears that westside kids are experiencing more nosebleeds and asthma than their eastside counterparts. The westside also seems to have cancer clusters and a higher rate of serious birth defects.
While the reports are all anecdotal, “we want to do the studies to confirm it,” Goding said, noting there appears to be “a very big difference in ailments” suffered by kids living in the Hanapepe to Kekaha corridor, compared to the Kapaa-Haena area. It's important to know what pesticides are being sprayed, Goding said, “so we can consider that” in diagnosing and treating patients.
Dr. Evslin submitted a letter in support of the bill “signed by most of the pediatricians on island.” He cited the 2012 American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement, which indicated that pesticide exposure may be “more of a problem than was known in the past” for kids and has “a big impact on the unborn.” Evslin said there should be a pesticide-free zone around schools.
Though Roundup use is not addressed by the bill, Evslin said there are numerous published scientific reports on the ill-effects of Roundup exposure, including its apparent ability to kill the good bacteria that live in our bodies and are crucial to digestion and strong immune systems.
Thomas Matsuda, pesticides program manager at the state Department of Agriculture, said sales records kept by the agency show that Kauai companies purchased “significantly less” than the 18 tons of restricted use pesticides (RUP) that bill supporters claim are used on-island each year. It sounded like 18 tons isn't a firm number, but was extrapolated from various reports. At any rate, that's going to be hashed out a bit more at Monday's Council committee hearing.
A worker for the chemical/seed companies pointed out that a number of pesticides approved for organic use have labels referencing deleterious environmental impacts, yet these substances, as well as products containing RUPs, can be purchased and used by citizens with no regulatory oversight or training. Others questioned whether the county was also going to look at the chemicals used by resorts, landscapers, swimming pool companies and its own agencies.
I was especially struck by the very different experiences that people are having. For example, a Waimea Valley mom said she hasn't opened the window in her kids' bedroom for four years because of fears about pesticide dust, and won't let her children linger in the bubble bath because she's worried about what's in the water. Contrast that to the lady who said she worked in the fields through two pregnancies and delivered healthy children, and the man who said he brought his days-old child to “the farm.”
One eyebrow-raiser came when Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura asked a field worker how much she was paid. When the woman demurred, JoAnn said she hoped company officials would provide that information. What has that got to do with this bill, and is it really the Council's kuleana to scrutinize the pay of private workers?
It also became evident pretty quickly that virtually all of those who spoke against the bill actually work in agriculture — many are from multi-generational farm families — whereas the majority of those who support the bill may at best maintain home gardens. Even though you may oppose pesticide use and conventional farming practices, I think you do have to concede that the people who are doing it probably know more about it than those of us who aren't.
Which brings me to the most heart wrenching aspect of this issue, and that's the employees, many of whom are former sugar workers from longtime westside families. I felt a lot of sympathy and compassion for them, because it was clear from their testimony that they take pride in their work. It must be pretty humiliating and painful to be suddenly treated like pariahs and accused of poisoning people and the aina.
It's very easy to diss the international chemical and pharmaceutical firms that own the seed companies and call for them to be expelled from the island. But it's not so easy to engage in that abstract demonization when the guy who runs the spray rig is standing right there saying he takes his job seriously, he is governed by numerous regulations and he would never do anything to harm his kids, his neighbors, the environment.
It was also apparent they're very afraid for their jobs right now. It doesn't really matter whether the fear is reasonable, or planted as a scare tactic by the owners. The workers are feeling it, and we need to have empathy for the stress, worry and deep uncertainty that such fear brings.
I've heard anti-GMO people express some pretty cavalier attitudes about the workers, stuff like, “it can't be that hard to come up with 500 jobs” and “oh, we can find something else for them to do.” But as we saw when sugar collapsed on the westside, it isn't a snap to find new jobs for those folks, which is why they're now working for the seed companies.
So it rang a little hollow when a KKCR talk show host who has relentlessly vilified the industry and its operations for months stood there in her red shirt and said, "We love you guys."
Oh, yes, I'm sure they're feeling the love.
As this contentious issue continues to be debated, I urge people to lose their blue and red tee-shirts and come together to listen, learn and craft solutions. If you combine red and blue, it makes purple, which just so happens to be Kauai's color.
The comments by Kepa Kruse, reported in today's The Garden Island, express that sentiment well:
“Both sides are fighting for the same thing, their families,” he said. “One side is fighting to feed their families; the other side is fighting to feed their families good food.”
“There has to be a unification of people for this to work,” Kruse said. “Otherwise, one side is going to lose.”