WAIMEA — Seek understanding of differing viewpoints. You can agree to disagree.
That was one of several house rules Monday evening inside the Waimea Theater, during the first of two community forums designed to “encourage meaningful discussion about genetically modified organisms and pesticide use.”
Kevin Folta, one of the event’s five pro-GMO panelists, said it is fine to agree to disagree about certain things, such as a restaurant, movie or even his haircut.
“We can have different opinions,” he said. “But on science, I really want to agree to agree. It’s too important for us all not to just pursue the truth.”
By sharing scientific evidence, Folta said agreeing is possible at the end of the day.
His comment did not go over well when it came time for questions from about 100 audience members.
Rick Goding, an orthopedic surgeon at the West Kauai Clinic in Waimea, said Folta was really telling the crowd, “We’re going to club you on the head with what we have to say, and you’re going to listen.”
Folta said that was not his intention, and that he does not pretend to have all the answers.
“What I have is the evidence that I have,” he said in response to Goding, who left the room in frustration. “I would love to hear yours. This is about a discussion of evidence. This is a discussion of science in a very emotional place. Science is what helps us sort that out.”
During a phone interview Tuesday, Goding said he was disappointed with how the event was run, with very little dialogue.
“It was billed poorly,” he said. “It should have been billed as a lecture.”
The pair of forums — held Monday at the Waimea Theater and Tuesday and Kapaa Elementary — were organized by the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association.
Panelists included Folta, an associate professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida; Jerry Ornellas, president of the Kauai County Farm Bureau; Kirby Kester, the applied genetics manager at BASF Plant Science in Kekaha and president-elect of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association; Dennis Gonsalves, the former director of the Pacific Basin Agriculture Research Center; and Steven Savage, a consultant with more than 30 years of experience in agricultural technology.
Kester said the four biotech seed companies on Kauai — BASF, Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer and Dow AgroSciences — collectively farm about 13,000 acres (less than 20 percent of the total farmland) from Polihale to Hanamaulu, employ roughly 600 workers annually, and contribute roughly $80 million to the Kauai economy each year.
“This money is a direct injection into the economy in the form of salaries, contracts with local businesses, construction work and other money spent in our local communities,” he said.
The main reason these companies choose to operate on Kauai, according to Kester, is the weather, and the ability to carry out plant breeding and seed production year-round.
“We develop plants with improved characteristics, based on the demand of our customers, who are farmers that want crops with higher yields, better disease and insect resistance, with better nitrogen use efficiency and drought tolerance” he said.
“The ultimate goal of our breeding efforts is to create plants that provide the highest yield and nutritional values for industrial use, while utilizing the smallest environmental footprint possible. That’s why biotechnology is very important as one of the tools in providing food for the future.”
Gonsalves, who started his career on Kauai in 1965 after graduating from the University of Hawaii, spoke primarily about his work developing the virus-resistant, transgenic Rainbow Papaya in the late-1990s.
“The concept, way back in 1985, was that we could theoretically vaccinate the papaya and make it resistant to papaya ringspot (virus),” he said.
In 1992, the virus reached Puna, on Big Island, where 95 percent of the industry was. It was then that Gonsalves and his team began testing the technology.
“What I want to stress is that the work that us public sector scientists did was really to try to help the farmers,” he said. “And as a result, I think that you see that the papaya is readily available to consumers.”
In 2002, Gonsalves’ team received the Alexander Von Humbolt Award for the most significant accomplishment in American agriculture in the past five years. Today, he said about 85 percent of Hawaii’s papaya is genetically engineered.
Folta told the audience that “nothing we eat is natural,” or untouched by humans.
“Every bit of food you eat, with some very rare exceptions,” he said, “have all been genetically manipulated by human beings through the process of breeding and selection.”
For this reason, Folta said he likes the term GMO, as “everything we are eating is a genetically modified organism.”
While it is hard for scientists to definitively say that something is safe, according to Folta, he said there is “zero evidence of harm” when it comes to GE technology.
As an independent scientist, Folta said there is a “tremendous incentive” to find something wrong with the technology, and that if he did he would report and publish it.
“And then I’d come back and get my Noble Prize, because there are many eyes that are continually scrutinizing this kind of material.”
Folta stressed that he has no ties to any company, but said there is a lot of misinformation being circulated by the anti-GMO side to push their agenda.
Steve Savage discussed pesticide use by biotech companies, describing it as a “difficult issue.”
“Unlike biotechnology, there were bad, old days when it comes to chemicals,” he said. “I’m very glad that we’re not using the pesticides of the 1950s, or even the 1960s.”
Savage said there are currently 29,000 pounds of Restricted Use Pesticides being used annually on Kauai; lower than the amount outlined in Kauai County Councilman Gary Hooser’s bill related to pesticides and GMOs.
While that amount “sounds like a lot,” Savage said, it is about 1.9 pounds per acre — or 0.000043 pounds per square foot — per year.
“We’re not talking about huge quantities,” he said.
In addition, Savage said only 2 percent of the total RUPs used on Kauai are any more toxic than the caffeine in an energy drink or a cup of coffee.
The RUPs being used on Kauai are not “extraordinary or unusual,” he said, adding that 2.8 million pounds of the same chemicals were used in California in 2011.
“The reason that pesticides are being used is because pests are real.”
One of the main reasons for the pair of forums, according to Ornellas, is that local farmers have not done a good job of interacting with the public.
“Today, our community of Kauai is deeply divided, and I can understand why,” he said.
For those who do not understand pesticides or genetic engineering, Ornellas said it “is very scary,” with many unanswered questions.
Today, farmers make up 2 percent of the U.S. population, and they are feeding the other 98 percent, according to Ornellas.
“In 2050, there will be 9.5 billion people on Earth. If you think that we can feed that population with pre-industrial agriculture, I can tell you right now that will not happen. There is no way that that can happen.”
Questions and concerns
Greg Holzman, a Westside fisherman and farmer, said local seed companies have not done a good job of disclosing what they doing or spraying. He questioned why the community should trust them.
“How are you going to make us feel safe when there is only one pesticide inspector on the island?” he asked.
Kester responded by saying there are strict rules and regulations, regular inspections, a huge amount of liability and no reason for the companies to spray more than they need to.
“The liability is amazing,” he said. “It’s not something that we joke around about or take lightly.”
Clayton Kuvo, a lifelong Waimea resident, said he has personally seen the companies spraying in high winds and asked how long the RUPs being used can stay in the environment.
Savage said many pesticides break down rapidly, while others may stay bound to the soil for awhile.
“But remember, we are talking in really minuscule amounts for any particular amount of soil,” he said.
Going back to an earlier comment, Don Heacock, an aquatic biologist with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, said, “Looking at this stacked group, if you will, we are pushing an agenda.”
Heacock also discussed the federal definition of “sustainable agriculture” — an integrated system of plant and animal production practices — and said that none of the biotech companies here are practicing that definition, or producing food for local consumption.
Another audience member, who did not provide his name, asked each panelist for their own definition of sustainable ag.
“If it’s not profitable, it’s not sustainable,” Ornellas said, drawing laughter.
Folta said it is like a three-legged stool, finding a balance of growing food for people, making a profit and being sensitive to the environment.
Kawai Warren, a Westside firefighter, questioned whether there are any valid health studies that have been done about the biotech companies’ practices in Hawaii.
“Not that I’m aware of,” Kester said.
Robin Clark asked the panel if there was some sort of public health issue that he was not aware of, which led to County Bill 2491 being drafted by Hooser.
“Farmers, as we know are extremely smart people,” he said. “If (the pesticides were) so toxic, why did they live within reach of the fields?”
During closing comments, Kester said BASF and the other biotech companies have not done a good enough job of engaging the community, but that the forums were a first step in the right direction.
“It’s hard to reach out to the other 98 (percent),” he said.
• Chris D’Angelo, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.