KEKAHA -— Uncle Jimmy’s Big Tent Kukakuka on the Westside Wednesday evening brought together three different perspectives on the issue of GMOs and agricultural pesticides.
While not the only topic of discussion under the red-and-white-striped tent at the Kekaha Neighborhood Center, it was the most thoroughly vetted, with community members, representatives from seed development companies Pioneer and Syngenta, and scientists reflecting different sides of the broad issue.
Lorrin Pang, a Maui County public health specialist, and Hector Valenzuela, a vegetable crops extension specialist at the University of Hawai‘i’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, talked generally about GMO safety as well as the illnesses at Waimea and Kekaha schools over the past year and a half.
Both stressed that an independent scientific study is required to determine the cause of the incidents — something that has yet to take place.
“You need scientific protocol to get to the source — ask for that,” Valenzuela told the crowd of almost 100.
Pang said an investigation is of utmost importance because companies and government agencies can follow all the rules and still inadvertently create health problems.
He gave an example of EPA-approved additives in the Upcountry water supply on Maui. In 2004 it was revealed that the chemicals were causing rashes, even though the county was abiding by federal standards.
Pang also cited a study of sick school children on Moloka‘i, where pesticide fumes were initially blamed. He said a scientific study there showed the cause to be flu, which was concurrently affecting other schools on the island.
Encouraging further study, Valenzuela said what’s believed to be safe today may turn out to be harmful down the road.
A citizen’s group is currently seeking a grant to independently monitor pesticide exposure. Maluia-WCMS is a coalition of Waimea Canyon Middle School staff, parents and community members concerned with the use of pesticides and GMO crops on lands adjacent to the campus.
If there’s another flare-up at Westside schools, Pang said attention should be paid to the prevalence of less conspicuous symptoms and the surrounding community, not just the students.
“You hear about the tip of the iceberg and you find the rest of it,” Pang said.
On the subject of GMOs, event organizer Jimmy Torio, a beekeeper from Anahola, asked about the impact of pollen from GMO plants on his bees, and subsequently the honey.
Cindy Goldstein, business and community outreach manager for Pioneer Hi-Bred International, said the protein created by the DNA from genetically modified corn, for example, does not always appear in every part of the plant. Studies have shown that it is not often found in pollen, but when it is, the GMO protein levels are typically very low.
She stressed that many of the questions she hears from residents about GMO food safety are asked first by the company and studied before the product is commercialized.
The company then makes decisions based on the “the weight of the body of scientific evidence,” Goldstein said.
Community members had a chance to discuss other major issues — Kekaha’s landfill capacity, safety concerns about the abandoned mill and the level of pollution in the ditches — but it was made clear from the start that the evening was about voicing concerns and not finding solutions.
Torio asked those in attendance to join the newly formed Kekaha neighborhood group, where committees would work to address solutions.
Laurie Goodwin, Hawai‘i outreach manager for Syngenta Seeds, said the event was a “great forum” for the seed companies to answer questions from community members. And as a Kekaha resident herself, Goodwin said she’s excited to see the follow-up work on the many issues raised.
Intended as a grassroots movement to spark community dialogue on regional issues, the stated goal of the Big Tent events has been to build coalitions to develop and implement solutions.
Jonathan Jay of Pono Kaua‘i, also an event organizer, said the series has been a work-in-progress and a learning experience. He agreed that having multiple sides of an issue represented was one of the “more valuable” aspects Wednesday.
Jay said it’s important to bring people together to form coalitions, but residents also have to take ownership of their concerns and put “their own slippers on.”
“We’re not trying to tell anyone what to do — except to do something,” Jay said.
Just two communities into the series, Uncle Jimmy’s Big Tent Kukakuka encountered difficulties when some of the event participants splintered off days prior to the Kekaha gathering and arranged an anti-GMO meeting in Hanapepe.
Both Valenzuela and Pang were shuttled to the second gathering after talking at the first, though the seed company representatives remained in Kekaha.
Diana Labedz, who organized the anti-GMO event, said the Big Tent had too many issues on the agenda. Furthermore, she felt the community needed to air their concerns without the seed companies’ participation.
Jay chalked the division up to the “growing pains” of coming together and said he was pleased that both events had strong turnouts.
“Two great events is certainly no defeat,” he said.
• Blake Jones, business writer/assistant editor, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 251) or firstname.lastname@example.org