The previous two segments of this series — Touring the Kauai Seed Fields: Part I and Part II — addressed pesticides, spraying activities and general misconceptions about what goes on in the West Kauai seed fields, where genetically engineered and hybrid plants are cultivated.
Today we'll take a look at Pioneer's pesticide storage shed and the computerized process used to authorize spraying operations. Though not every company uses the same software, it became clear upon seeing it in action that it would be nearly impossible to do the sort of “drenching” and experimental combination of products that opponents allege and fear.
But let's start at the beginning, in the pesticide shed. It's actually an old cargo shipping container, and much of the inventory comprised organic pesticides. Yes, organic farmers also use pesticides that must be registered with the EPA. And yes, the “chem companies” use many of the same pesticides and practices employed on organic farms.
Though Councilman Gary Hooser and his supporters love to make [false] claims, like the companies used 18 tons of pesticides, Dr. Joao Kopytowski Filho, a research scientist at Pioneer and licensed pesticide applicator, pointed out that weight means nothing when it comes to pesticides. Kaolin clay (Surround) is both the heaviest, and most benign, pesticide used. The key is active ingredient.
I'm super sensitive to the smell of pesticides, so I kind of dreaded going inside the shed, but the only odor I detected was the mustiness of a shipping container. There was a lot less inventory than I expected, given the claims that they are spraying vast quantities of poison day and night, but they said the quantity was what they typically have on hand. At least half the inventory was adjuvants, such as surfactants, which are mixed with pesticides to improve their performance.
Each product in the shed is managed under a barcode inventory system. Each container is weighed when it goes out, and when it comes back in, to ensure the quantity used matches what's on the work order. Empty containers are triple-rinsed and recycled.
Pioneer has used a GPS system to map all of its fields — a field may be a 10-foot plot — and the coordinates are entered into the computer when a crop is planted. An Integrated Pest Management (IPM) inspection schedule is created to scout for pests, based on the type of plant that is being grown.
Upon going to the field to scout, the IPM assistants use I-phones or I-pads to enter data about what insects they've seen into a computer program that helps them decide what to do about the pests, and when. If there's a large population of beneficial insects, and a low threat of damage, they'll let the beneficial insects take care of the pests.
“Spraying is the last option,” Joao said. “We can also do manual removal, or eliminate [infested] plants. It depends on the pest, the size of the plant and the likelihood of damage.”
IPM managers also consult three weather stations to gather data on wind, rain and other environmental conditions that could affect their treatment decisions.
Once they decide to spray, they create a computerized work order with documentables for the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, including the type of pest, the product they'll be using, the type of sprayer and nozzle that will apply the product, the percentage of water in the mix and the environmental factors.
I watched as Joao tried to combine various chemicals, or exceed the application amount allowed on the label. Whenever he went outside the allowable parameters for using the product, the computer would reject the work order. And without a work order, no pesticides can be checked out of the storage shed.
In short, it would be nearly impossible for Pioneer to be experimenting with pesticide combinations, as GMO opponents claim, or exceeding the authorized application amount.
All the work orders are kept in an off-site data base, so Pioneer couldn't alter its records or fabricate new ones to cover up misuse. The whole intent of the software package is to prevent human error and protect people – especially field workers.
Pioneer staff said their water sprayer, which operates almost all day, has been misperceived as a sprayer. And though opponents claim the companies spray three times a day, what they either don't know or say is that the fields tend to be very small, and each in a different location.
Work orders may be created to treat just 10 or 50 plants, with as little as 5 or 7 milliliters of pesticide applied. The software was actually customized so Pioneer could chart these tiny applications. Typically, only very small quantities of restricted use pesticides are applied, Joao said. With organic pesticides, more product is used at a higher frequency.
The software also determines how much time must elapse before workers can re-inter the field, and that information is posted. Though people claim that pesticides are getting worse, they're actually getting less toxic, Joao said. They're breaking down faster, which means a shorter re-entry time, and they're more specifically targeted to pests.
Joao and the other Pioneer applicators bristled at the notion that they are dousing fields with no regard for safety. They face personal liability if they misuse pesticides, and they take their work seriously.
“Commercial applications like this are highly regulated,” Joao said, “but homeowners have no restrictions or oversight on their use of pesticides.”