A recent contentious post prompted a comment from a reader lamenting, “where's the center?” in conversations about GMOs and pesticides.
It's a good question, and one that's certainly relevant as Kauai, and hopefully the rest of Hawaii, begins the process of healing from the social rift and community polarization caused by pesticide/GMO activism.
In responding, one of the first things that came to mind was a recent guest editorial in the Star-Advertiser by Joni Kamiya, who wrote that we need to “start to agree on the facts.”
Yeah, the facts are a really good place to start. So in this and upcoming posts I'm going to be scrutinizing claims and facts, in hopes the reasonable among us can find some agreement.
Because right now we have people saying really extreme stuff like, “the chemical companies are totally unregulated and the GMO crops are poisoning people.” Most recently, that ludicrous claim was revised to assert that they are having "an unjustified disproportionate and adverse effect Native Hawaiians.”
In fact, according to the state Health Department, the number one cause of poisoning fatalites in Hawaii is drugs, which “caused almost all (93%) of the poisonings, including 37% from “sedative-hypnotic and psychotropic drugs”, and 29% from “narcotics and hallucinogens”. Pesticides are way down the list, and they are associated primarily with home use, not agriculture.
These graphics from the state's Poison Prevention Hotline annual report offer more detail:We also hear a lot about how we have to protect the keiki from ag pesticides,with mandatory buffer zones the most frequently touted remedy. But what is really poisoning Hawaii keiki?
And again, products found in the children's homes are the most likely to cause harm.
Though a Center for Food Safety "fact sheet" asserts that "there have been at least six episodes of pesticide-induced illness at schools since just 2006," it leaves out the good part: not one came from agriculture. In fact, there have been 16 such episodes since 2006, with the culprits identified as a school janitor, a turf company and household pesticide use.
The seed companies, like anyone who uses pesticides, are indeed regulated. They're regulated by the state, which issues their pesticide applicator license, and by the EPA, which sets the standards for pesticide use. You may not think the regulations are sufficient, and no doubt some will claim that the EPA has been infiltrated by the chemical companies. None of that changes the fact that they are regulated, and those who violate the law are subject to both civil and criminal penalities.
As I've previously reported, the seed companies in Hawaii are actually subjected to far more rigorous and frequent oversight than agricultural entities on the mainland. Because there are so many growers on the mainland, they may encounter a pesticide inspector only once every five years, compared to several times annually in the Islands — or more often if people are complaining.
We also hear “pesticides are poison.” It's a favorite tactic of groups like Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice to pad their complaints and literature with all sorts of scary data about pesticides.
No one is disputing that pesticides are poison. They are designed to kill insects and weeds. That's why they are so carefully regulated. But when it comes to health, there are two issues at stake: Are people being exposed to pesticides from agricultural operations? And if so, is that exposure occuring at harmful levels?
Thus far, we have seen absolutely no indication that either is occuring. Indeed, every study that has been done — even those by the antis — detected pesticides at only trace amounts, far-far below federal safety standards.
Though people like Joint Fact Finding facilitator Peter Adler are trying to build a case for harm from chronic, low-level exposure, those threshholds have not yet been set by the federal government, which is the responsible entity, not the state.
So when Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff claims, "The public is at risk and the Department of Agriculture is asleep at the wheel," he's telling a bald-faced lie.
We also hear often hear that "no exposure/residue is acceptable." Again, that's a belief system.
In fact, the EPA conducts a lengthy, science-based review, based on federal safety standards, before manufacturers can sell pesticides in the United States. As a result of this process, the EPA determines applicable buffer zones for the product, whether it can be used indoors, the safe re-entry time, acceptable exposure levels for human and environmental health and many other factors.
In setting exposure rates, it builds in a large safety buffer. The EPA also has a science-based risk-assessment process, with a robust public comment process, to assess and set pesticide tolerance levels for each crop.
After hearing Earthjustice, Center for Food Safety and Councilman Gary Hooser make a big hoo-haw about chlorpyrifos, I actually waded through the EPA's risk assessment on the product. I came away reassured that the EPA looks at these products carefully, and convinced that it would be nearly impossible for anyone on Kauai to be exposed to chlorpyrifos through drift from the seed fields, as the antis have alleged. And county tests showed it's not in the water.
So it's highly unlikely anyone on Kauai is even being exposed to ag uses of chlorpyrifos, much less harmed, even though critics can point to a long list of bad things that can happen to people who are exposed.
We see another example of intentional dishonesty with Kimo Franklin's letter to the editor, published in Sunday's Star-Advertiser. The Maunalua-Hawaii Kai activist writes:
The problem is, seed-crop companies and all the land they occupy in Hawaii don’t grow one ounce of food for local consumption. Properly managed diversified agriculture should be the agricultural priority for Hawaii. Bottom line: Grow food for Hawaii’s population first. Then Hawaii can decide how to help feed the rest of the world.
The fact is, there is plenty of land available for growing food, and whatever people want to grow. As I pointed out just last week, the seed companies control roughly 10,000 acres, about half of which are actively planted. This represents but a tiny fraction of the 2 million acres of ag land available in Hawaii today. What's missing are farmers, markets, an economically competitive crop.
What's more, the seed industry is defined as diversified agriculture, and its efforts to preserve irrigation systems and other ag infrastructure support all farming. So it's totally in keeping with the state Constitutional directive to “conserve and protect agricultural lands, promote diversified agriculture, increase agricultural self-sufficiency and assure the availability of agriculturally suitable land” — even if Kimo wants to pretend otherwise.
It's patently false to claim that the seed industry is somehow taking away any effort to grow food for Hawaii's population. Indeed, it's actively supporting food production, as I discovered when I toured Pioneer's Waialua farm and saw all the ways it's helping local farmers.
Though I've been called a chemical company shill, I have no real interest, economic or otherwise, in the agrochemical companies operating in Hawaii. I got into this issue primarily because I saw a lot of fear-mongering lies being treated as fact to promote Bill 2491.
And that's when I started drilling down to find out what's real.
At the time, I found a video, based around a song parody, that had been produced by a UC-Davis livestock lab that uses both conventional and genetic engineering breeding. As one lyric goes, "Tiny lies, turn to big, suddenly they're known as truth."
That's exactly what I saw happening on Kauai, and elsewhere in the GMO debate, and it reaffirmed my own commitment to look for the facts. They're an ideal starting point for reasonable, rational discussion, and the best hope for reaching some sort of agreement.
So can we agree on these facts?
1) The seed crops and other pesticide users in Hawaii are regulated.
2) There is currently no evidence of human or environmental harm from seed company operations.
3) Homeowners are the primary source of pesticide poisonings.
4) Drugs, not pesticides, are the primary source of poisonings in Hawaii.
5) The seed companies are not a deterrent to food production, and in some instances are actually supporting it.
If you disagree, please be prepared to present some facts to back up your claims.