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.