Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Touring the Kauai Seed Fields: Part I

Countless charges have been leveled against the Kauai seed companies in recent years.

They've been accused of poisoning people with pesticide drift, using experimental pesticides, creating chemical cocktails of odd pesticide mixes, drenching their soil and crops with pesticides, using more chemicals than an average farm, disguising research as farming, mistreating the land with intensive agricultural practices, engaging in industrial ag, suing for the right to keep spraying near homes and schools, and in general, having a wanton disregard for the health and safety of their neighbors and the environment.

After covering the industry for years — and initially getting little or no response when I called for comments — I was pleased to see that public scrutiny had prompted them to open up, rather than hunker down. So when they invited me to tour their Kauai facilities when I returned from South Korea, I accepted.

In a full-on westside marathon, I visited the Dow and Pioneer facilities, and fields used by Syngenta and BASF. At the end of the day — hot, sweaty and sticky with mango juice — I had a much better idea of what they do out there. There's nothing like actually seeing it with your own eyes to gain a clearer understanding.

Which perhaps explains why Councilman Gary Hooser, the politician who led the anti-GMO movement on Kauai, continues to make such outrageous accusations against the industry. He's never actually visited any of the farms. Well, except for that quick trespass into the Pioneer fields with the French journalist....

My first stop was the glass-enclosed meeting room at Dow, which offers a gorgeous view of the ocean and Niihau. It's the kind of sweeping view you see in upscale places like South Kona or Upcountry Maui, the kind that would appeal to folks with big kala to spend on second homes if agriculture on the westside were to die.
Executives from all the companies were gathered there, and we began by talking about their operations specific to Kauai.

They produce biotech and conventional hybrids, sending seed to plant breeders all around the world. In fact, Pioneer is the world's largest produce of soybean seeds for the organic market. Their seed is also used for research and development on the mainland.

At least half of what the companies grow is not GMO, because when you're making hybrids, one plant will be genetically engineered and the other won't. Their “experimental” work is essentially cross-breeding plant varieties to create such traits as disease and insect resistance.

“When we plant something, we call it an experiment, but it's just evaluating their traits and their effectiveness,” said Peter Wiederoder, who runs the Dow facility.

All the seeds the companies produce can be replanted by farmers. None of the companies have actually produced sterile — aka “terminator technology” — seeds for commercial use. But yield is reduced when hybrids are replanted, which is why farmers typically choose to buy need seeds each year whether they're GE or not. Farmers are not legally prohibited from saving seed.

The companies also have fields elsewhere — Mexico, Puerto Rico, South America — to spread the risk in case weather wipes out their crops in one area, and also to evaluate performance in various growing conditions.

Though I've heard activists claim the companies operate in Hawaii because they're either a) trying to contain the fallout of failed experiments or b) don't care if the Islands are exposed, the reality is pretty innocuous.

The companies like Hawaii because the year-round growing cycles allow them to speed up the natural process of growing out plants with the desired traits. It can take seven years to get a new seed to market on the mainland, compared to half that time in the Islands.

And time is money, both of which matter in the highly competitive world of seed breeding.

“We are trying to optimize plant growth, which means minimize pesticide use,” Peter said.

Sarah Styan, a plant geneticist at Pioneer, agreed. “We want our plants to live. We succeed only if our plants survive.”

In other words, none of the seed companies are spraying plants with max chemicals to see how much pesticide exposure they can withstand before they make. That work is actually done on the mainland “in a very controlled environment,” Peter said. It is not done at the field stage.

However, as part of their quality control measures, they will give Roundup Ready parent seeds an application of that herbicide to ensure it survives.

And despite frequent claims to the contrary, they are not using any experimental pesticides — again, such work is carried out elsewhere, in closed greenhouse facilities — or trying out any weird chemical cocktails.

“If we wanted to do that, we would have to get an experimental use permit because we would be using the pesticide off-label,” Peter explained. (Later, I'll get into how software programs make it nearly impossible for the companies to improperly use pesticides.)

Here on Kauai, it's all about keeping plants alive, because their seeds are incredibly valuable.

The four companies practice IPM — integrated pest management. It's a common modern agricultural practice, defined as “an ecosystem-based strategy that focuses on long-term prevention of pests or their damage through a combination of techniques such as biological control, habitat manipulation, modification of cultural practices, and use of resistant varieties.”

Blaise Boyle, agronomy manager for BASF, likened IPM to an artist's palette, with an array of tools that can be used to achieve certain effects. Their response is governed by the type of pest, time of day, age of the crop, weather and other factors.

They also use a range of cultivation practices, such as planting fields upwind of mature crops, which tend to have bigger insect populations, to keep pests out of new fields, and letting fields lie fallow in August and September to break the insect cycle.

“There are a lot of different practices at play before we ever use pesticides,” Blaise said.

Added Sarah: “It's a biological system, and it's always changing.” 

The companies plant their fields 660 feet apart, or at one-to-two-month intervals, so as to avoid cross-contamination. In a 3,500-acre parcel, for example, only 1,000 to 1,500 acres would be in cultivation at any one time, which is why their fields look like a patchwork quilt. About 90 percent of the land the companies lease is not cultivated.

Much of their time is spent scouting their crops, to see what they need. Based on their findings, such as an insect infestation, they may decide to apply pesticides. And this is where their resistance to detailed, daily disclosure arises. All the companies are fiercely competitive, so revealing their spraying formula is akin to sharing a secret recipe, they said.

They all buy their chemicals from BEI, like other farmers, and they don't get any discounts — not even from their parent companies that produce the pesticides. 

In short, the companies have no economic incentive to overuse pesticides, and because chemicals are costly, they seek to minimize applications.

It's been frequently claimed that Hawaii fields are using more pesticides than elsewhere, but such comparisons are tricky.

There are more pests and diseases in the tropics than on the mainland, and “many other factors and variables,” Blaise said.

In any case, Sarah said, each pesticide label specifies how much can be applied per acre, either by crop or calendar year.

And though activists claim state inspections are slack, the seed companies say otherwise, in part because Hawaii has so few farmers that they're easy to check on.

“Anne Kam carefully audits our pesticide use,” Peter said. “She's here three to four times a year. On the mainland, there are so many farmers you wouldn't see a pesticide person but every five years or so. When Anne receives a call our entire books are open to her — how much we bought, how much we used, our application records. She'll talk to regular workers, too. The punishment is you get your license removed. That's huge.”

In Hawaii, licenses are held by individuals, who can be held personally liable for pesticide misuse. There is no corporate shield to protect them.

Legal restrictions aside, if pesticides are overused the insects will build natural resistance, Blaise said, and they're already rotating the different pesticides they use to keep that from happening.

“We have no real incentives to break the label,” Blaise said.

Next: The big bad sprayer and a look at Pioneer's pesticide container.


Anonymous said...

Nice that they used you as one of their tools, Ms Joan!

Anonymous said...

On the island of Kauai, you are guilty until proven innocent and even if proven innocent you are still guilty. Ask corrupt Judge Valenciano, he can explain it to you all. The incompetent divorce lawyer, turned politician, and then accepted as a syndicate slave Judge to help the powers is what's wrong with Kauai.

Joan Conrow said...

Yes, but first they forced me to drink copious quantities of kool-aid. Last thing I remember was looking up at a sky full of chem trails and when I got in the truck my notebook was all full of quotes.

Anonymous said...

Out of curiosity, would you do a similar sit down with a bunch of high end realtors and take everything they say at face value and then regurgitate it back on on your blog?

Joan Conrow said...

No. That's why it's taken me six weeks to write this, because I checked out what they said.

Anonymous said...

"would you do a similar sit down with a bunch of high end realtors"

The ones who are saying the land is poisoned so they can sell it cheap?

Anonymous said...

Good job Joan! No matter what you say these crazies will stick to "they are right no matter what you prove mentality". I'm so stoked you cleared some of my questions up regarding what exactly goes on as I was on the fence not sure what to believe. Too much nonsense and noise on Kauai about what is right and wrong. Activists is the new word for expert it seems. Enjoy our beautiful island and stop worrying about things you know nothing about. Barcas Chemtrails he has been seeing only showed up 5 years ago I have been seeing those clouds for over 30 years. He is a great surfer and I say great cause I watched him do it from small kid time. Terrible leader as his influence on innocent minds have led people down a negative and fruitless path.

Anonymous said...

I trust Joan's reporting because she's been an actual published, professional journalist in Hawaii for 25 years. She does what real journalists used to do - she checks things out and she doesn't assume. People talk to her and open their doors to her because they know she is actually trying to get facts, data and information. And when she's wrong or makes a mistake, she'll let you know about that, too. Thanks for your hard work and for taking so much grief, Joan.

Anonymous said...

How does it benefit realtors to support anti GMO and anti dairy groups? I get that they would prefer the land be rezoned for development but making up all these horror stories about chemicals and pollution is just scaring potential buyers away. If I was a realtor I would be suing groups like HAPA for losses on sales since its all a bunch of fear mongering anyways. It really seems like realtors are shooting themselves in the foot with this anti mentality. Posts like this really make me feel better about everything except the anti propaganda. It's getting so over played. And all they do is repeat the same stuff even when proven wrong. Seriously, any one who still chooses to follow the anti movement is really really dumb, especially Realtors.

Anonymous said...

Great post Joan! I agree with last commebter on Barca. Sad to see him go down such a negative path and bring other innocents with him. I worry about the north shore youth. He is very ignorant and destructive. Not a good roll model at all.

Anonymous said...

It was common knowledge by plantation people that the first seed companies came to Kauai in 1969 because one of the agronomist for the company undertook to determine where the most sunshine was year round in America., It turned out to be Mana. So they found out there was a sugar plantation already there and picked up the phone and called asking ag questions about leases and water. Then they flew out.,And liked what they saw..

Anonymous said...

make blight/ realtors and their friends buy the land cheap/ hold for however long/ sell dear/its all about the future development of the islands agriculture lands/oh the views are worth a million dollas and well worth waiting for

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the good reporting and investigative journalism. I appreciate that you keep trying to share facts with everyone... Hmmm, maybe there is more to the GMO debate than what I read on Facebook.

KatieH said...

Joan, the problem is not whether the plant can resist the pesticides but rather the humans next door. They may only be able to apply so much of one pesticide, but what is the result when several are applied in a short period of time or in combination? Maybe the plant can take it, but can their human neighbors? So often the total pounds of pesticides used are divided by the total acreage they lease. You have stated that they do not cultivate 90% of what they lease. Have you examined the pesticide use disclosed over 10% of the acreage they cultivate? For Syngenta, the 4795 lb of active ingredient they reported in the first 12 months of "voluntary" disclosure, divided by 28% of the 3000 acres they lease comes out to nearly 6lb per acre (triple the 2lb per acre the scientist they hired to talk to the community, Steve Savage, claimed was typical of farms). If they really only plant 10% as you claim, the concentration increases to 16 lb per acre!!! So while your information may be accurate, you are leaving out the most important aspect. How does this affect the PEOPLE. I'm not really worried about the plants.

Joan Conrow said...

Well just hold your horses, Katie Horgan. I can't fit everything into one post. First off, you're making a lot of false assumptions here, just as you did a lot of sketchy number crunching that created the 18 tons per year myth. I'll be addressing weight as a poor measure of toxicity, how many humans really are next door and much more in subsequent posts.

Anonymous said...

Look, I don't care if you choose to throw away what little credibility you have left, but writing "At least half of what they grow is not GMO, because when you're making hybrids, one plant will be genetically engineered and the other won't." is absolute nonsense and you must have either 1) misspoke 2) Wrote what the GMO companies said verbatim without actually fact checking and/or 3) Really have no more idea what you're talking about than Dustin Barca or Gary Hooser.

Joan Conrow said...

I'm not sure why you're so wildly incensed, but perhaps this will clarify my statement for you: They are also developing hybrid lines that do not have biotech traits.

Anonymous said...

Joan, I am curious. Do you think the seed companies us of farm land on Kauaʻi is a good example of self-sufficiency and sustainability? I hear they produce seed, ship it to the USA, it is grown there using biocides, the corn is fed to cattle whose stomachs are not designed for it at feed lots, the cattle are butchered and packaged and the meat is the shipped back to Kauaʻi where we can buy it at Safeway or Costco or Big Save. Seems like a lot of wasted oil and energy, donʻt you think? Isnʻt it better to produce food and consume it locally without exporting and then importing back? And the corn grown from these seeds is also used to produce high fructose corn syrup which is an essential ingredient in tons of junk food which is not healthy but promoted by the industry. If we compare a system such as this to organic farms on Kauaʻi which actually produce healthy food for us to eat right here, which system do you think is the better at being sustainable and supportive of self-sufficiency?

Joan Conrow said...

I whole-heartedly support local sustainability initiatives that can successfully compete in replacing imported food with locally grown food. That is always ideal and a goal the island should be working toward. Given the current availability of land, the seed companies pose no barrier to the expansion of local food production and self-sufficiency. In fact, in many ways they can help it by keeping irrigation systems going, doing subleases, etc.

I am not a whole-hearted supporter of the corn-based American diet, feed lots, or all seed/chem company business practices and products. I'm just trying to shed a little light on how they operate on Kauai so people can have more rational discussions about things like their role in sustainability.

Anonymous said...

That's why you pay Infated prices. All you have to do is look at food prices that has risen like oil/gas prices the last 5-7 years. So your dollar is not worth what its buying power was back as recently as a year ago and this is even when gas/oil prices has gone down.

They put American oil on a ship then turn it around, switching the flag and then charging at the Infated prices.

Kauai shrimp has gone up from $12 a 2 lb box to $22 in just over a year, the May's marinated meats started at $5-7 to now anywhere from $13-$22 for the same boxed meats and look at Pok'e from $5 a lb to $11.99 a lb even after Fukushima is polluting the Pacific Ocean with toxic radiation.

So you all see why growing food on Kauai and the state of Hawaii should be the number 1 most important issue in the state. The fad word sustainable is just like the words Peace, together we can, shaka brah, fo shizzle... Until it will lose its coolness and then replaced by another word/slogan drummed up by the mob/politicians.

Play that funky music Kauai boy
Play that funky music right
Play that funky music Kauai boy
Grow your own food and let the GMO issues die

Anonymous said...

Kauai will never be sustainable. Da Hoos, JoAnn and Mason's idear on sustainably are the large 5 acre home sites on the NS that are worth 1 to 20 million, plant a few Lychee and a get few goats and Voila! a sustaining farm.
For sustainability to work output must cover true costs. Costs are high. The Council does not address real issues on Kauai like high taxes, high County costs, roads etc. They pretend to be important by filling their agendas with small issues.
But even if land was free, water was free and labor was free and their was an abundance of the rate Kauai is going the perishables would rot by the time it takes to go thru the Kapaa/Wailua corridor.
Council work the State to at least leave the Lihue Bound Cones up until 5PM...this will stop the traffic jam.
Joan- thank you for your coverage of this. Another point that may be revealed, is that tho' these are commercial ag operations, the workers have a real tie to land. It seems the dedication to the land supersedes everything else.

Anonymous said...

Joan. Does Alliance for Science pay you per word, per blog post or pet click? As you mentioned earlier they arenpsyingbyou to write this stuff. And no I don't expect you to allow this comment as you are in fact a dishonest industry shill masqueradeing as an independent blogger.

Anonymous said...

Instead of giving tax credits to the movie Industry, the county should learn from them.

Park and ride then shuttle movie extras, production crew, staff, and dignitaries to the filming site.

This would work well from Hanalei to Ke'e. Park in the open field then transport the tourists to the sites. If the county uses 15 passenger vans at a dollar per head then it's $15 dollar in and $15 out. The county should charge a couple dollars per vehicle in an open lot that would be secured because we know how the local thieves like to prey on tourists.

This would supplement the income of local retirees on the Northshore. Hopefully it will be enough to help them live in the area where their families been for generations. Instead of displacing them from their paradise.

It's a system paid for by the tourists that wouldnt cost tax payers, businesses and hotels nothing but for the up front cost. It can all be recouped through the 100's of tourists trying to get to the popular Northshore sites that don't have any parking because of overcrowding.

Food for thought without the 200K consultant fee. Giterdone

Joan Conrow said...

7:58 I wrote a very specific set of stories for the Alliance. No one pays me to write anything in my blog.

Anonymous said...

You are talking the hundreds of tourists tying yo get to the end of the road, no it it thousands of tourists a day. And what open field, you mean the park and soccer field? Why do you think we should take our park and turn the into parking lots?

Anonymous said...

Great Job Joan,
It is rare to see real journalist nowadays and I can see by the scattering of coach-roaches in the comment section that you have hit the correct light switch and it is sufficiently bright.

Anonymous said...

I find it hilarious that katie Horgan is ALWAYS talking s*** about you and your blog on FB but here she is in the comments. lol!!! Your the only game in town Joan

Joan Conrow said...

Anonymous 3:53-- Here's a bit more to add to your educamation about hybrids:

A hybrid is a cross between a male and a female line of corn. Usually one – male or female – but not both have the GE trait(s). The other then obviously does not. Since Kauai companies produce both the male and female lines of parent seed, in general, half the parent seed grown here is non-GMO.

Ashleigh klein said...

I would like to see your so called research, would you make that available. Is there any factual proof you have to back up your claims??

Anonymous said...

Is that like being 50% pregnant?

Anonymous said...

First of all the 150K could have bought the county 5-6 15 passenger vans, second there's open fields all over the Northshore that could be used as a park and ride site, third if you don't have a solution then just go back to doing what you all do on the Northshore and live that painted fantasy.

5-6 15 passenger vans equates to 75-90 people who can be shuttled from Princeville to Ke'e and back again from 7am to 7pm. So there goes your thousands of satisfied tourists. Oahu uses trollies and even in nawiliwili, Kauai they use trollies to shuttle hundreds/thousands of tourists.

So don't act like you are that ignorant but if you are then that signifies people like you is what's wrong with the county of Kauai.

150K for a personal business to run a shuttle on the Northshore of Kauai. That's 50K a month for the sole operator/owner. Are you frickin serious? Why don't the county just throw 100 dollar bills at the Christmas parade in Lihue? Probably the voters will vote your Mayor for a 3rd term after displaying their underdeveloped minds acting like children.

When a problem is identified, solutions must be brought to the discussion. If you don't have any input then you are as useless as carrying groceries in wet paper bag.

Joan Conrow said...


And I would like to see some of the so-called research that you and your anti-GMO cohorts conducted before making allegations against the Kauai seed companies. Is there any factual proof to back up your claims???

Anonymous said...

8/6 @ 8:01 AM, so clever sounding yet so woefully ignorant and ineffective.

KatieH said...

Hey "Anonymous" you are so brave when you don't share who you are? I don't "talk shit" I talk facts! New concept; I know.

Anonymous said...

Well, Waimea won the lawsuit! Isn't that something in itself----the seed companies are not all that honest and have taken the islanders down an ugly path---do you realize how hard people had to work regarding the lawsuit?! It's not a usual "local type of doing", but something had to be done for the sake of the people! Hybrid's?---using gmoed seeds? Can you get an answer for that? Where are these being grown? I would like to know so that we can check out if the spraying of pesticides are any different than what is done for the gmo fields. Meanwhile, what you learned sounds very good---did they tell you everything---any junk stuff that they themselves are still trying to figure out? And don't think Robinson will sell land where DOW's offices are, no need to worry about realtors getting rich with Robinson's properties! Yep, you can see the ocean, Niihau--beautiful---you make it so enticing.

Anonymous said...


In biology, a hermaphrodite is an organism that has reproductive organs normally associated with both male and female sexes.[1] Many taxonomic groups of animals (mostly invertebrates) do not have separate sexes.[2] In these groups, hermaphroditism is a normal condition, enabling a form of sexual reproduction in which both partners can act as the "female" or "male". For example, the great majority of tunicates, pulmonate snails, opisthobranch snails and slugs are hermaphrodites. Hermaphroditism is also found in some fish species and to a lesser degree in other vertebrates. Most plants are also hermaphrodites.

Anonymous said...

and people or farmers choose what thy want to grow, if you are a marijuana farmer, you don't want the herms or the males, if you are growing papaya,the males only make flowers and you want the herm, choosing what you grow has always been important. Many people choose hybrids for their characteristics such as strength, disease resistance and time of growth, others want open pollinated seeds so they can replant the seeds, but giving your garden time to allow the plants to set seeds and dry and regrow, you may miss the season to plant, so most farmers choose to buy seeds

Anonymous said...

spoken like an ego maniac... New concept; I know.Katie, maybe you know what you know, but not as much as you think you do

Anonymous said...

@12:20 Katie says: I don't "talk shit" I talk facts!

No way! I have seen your snarky shit talk on Facebook. You make up your "facts."