The bee sting lawsuit now working its way through Kauai District Court underscores why many farmers worry about a pesticide disclosure law: It opens them up to litigation by people who believe they've been harmed.
In this case, Luis Soltren is suing his beekeeping neighbor, Jesse Castro, after Luis suffered two stings that sent him to the hospital with an allergic reaction. Though it's impossible to know whether the bees belonged to Jesse, he's being fingered as the culprit because he kept managed hives.
Similarly, farmers worry that they'll be dinged with lawsuits because under recently proposed laws, they'd be the only ones required to disclose pesticide use. So they'll be blamed whenever a neighbor suffers some sort of malady, even it it's due to a pesticide applied by someone who isn't bound by disclosure, or not pesticide-related at all.
In Luis' case, he has some additional protection because beekeeping isn't allowed in residential neighborhoods without a permit. But when you consider that agricultural districts have been overrun by non-farmers who have zero tolerance for pesticides, dust, noise, smells and other ag by-products, it's not at all far-fetched to think they would use disclosure laws to harass legitimate farmers. It can cost thousands of dollars, and much angst, to defend yourself against a legal action, even if you prevail.
It's so easy to call for more regulations, but they all have far-reaching implications that need to be thought through, and frequently aren't.
Mark Lynas, an author and former Greenpeace activist, made that point in his recent New York Times commentary, where he talks about the implications of a ban on Bt brinjal (eggplant) that anti-GMO activists are seeking. Lynus discussed his visit to the Bangladesh farm of Mohammed Rahman:
As we squatted in the muddy field, examining the lush green foliage and shiny purple fruits, he explained how, for the first time this season, he had been able to stop using pesticides. This was thanks to a new pest-resistant variety of eggplant supplied by the government-run Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute.
Productivity nearly doubled. Mr. Rahman had already harvested the small plot 10 times, he said, and sold the brinjal (eggplant’s name in the region) labeled “insecticide free” at a small premium in the local market. Now, with increased profits, he looked forward to being able to lift his family further out of poverty. I could see why this was so urgent: Half a dozen shirtless kids gathered around, clamoring for attention. They all looked stunted by malnutrition.
In a rational world, Mr. Rahman would be receiving support from all sides. He is improving the environment and tackling poverty. Yet the visit was rushed, and my escorts from the research institute were nervous about permitting me to speak with him at all.
The new variety had been subjected to incendiary coverage in the local press, and campaign groups based in Dhaka were suing to have the pest-resistant eggplant banned. Activists had visited some of the fields and tried to pressure the farmers to uproot their crops. Our guides from the institute warned that there was a continuing threat of violence — and they were clearly keen to leave.
Conventional eggplant farmers in Bangladesh are forced to spray their crops as many as 140 times during the growing season, and pesticide poisoning is a chronic health problem in rural areas. But because Bt brinjal is a hated G.M.O., or genetically modified organism, it is Public Enemy No.1 to environmental groups everywhere.
I understand that many anti-GMO activists view everything through the lens of Roundup Ready crops, and thus reject them as encouraging pesticide use. But other biotech crops, like those with Bt (a gene transferred from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, that produces a protein that kills specific insects) are designed to reduce pesticide use.
And aren't we all pretty much in agreement that reducing pesticide use is a good thing?
Lynas goes on to write:
In Uganda, the valuable banana crop is being devastated by a new disease called bacterial wilt, while the starchy cassava, a subsistence staple, has been hit by two deadly viruses. Biotech scientists have produced resistant varieties of both crops using genetic modification, but anti-G.M.O. groups have successfully prevented the Ugandan Parliament from passing a biosafety law necessary for their release.
So then what are the ramifications for Ugandans growing cassava and banana? Crop failures? Lost income? More pesticide use? Prolonged poverty?
In much the same way, scientists developed technology to help papaya resist the ringspot virus, thus allowing the commercial cultivation of that crop to continue in Hawaii, especially on the Big Island, while reducing pesticide use. But that hasn't stopped misinformed and fearful activists from waging war against GE papaya.
Though the anti-GMO movement hit Hawaii like a socio-political tsunami, it's time now, with the waters receding, to take a breath and look realistically and reasonably at the bigger picture of biotechnology in the Islands, and the implications of both its presence, and attempts to regulate it.