A few weeks ago, shortly after release of the draft report of the Joint Fact Finding Group examining pesticide use by large agricultural firms, I found myself on a radio show talking about it with County Councilmember Gary Hooser.
I noted — I thought in passing — that Bill 2491, the infamous legislation that clamped arbitrary restrictions on pesticide use by companies that happen to work in developing genetically engineered crops, had been intended originally as primarily a weapon to ban GE (or GMO, for “genetically modified organism,” if you prefer) from Kauai.
Ever since a federal judge invalidated the ordinance that came out of Bill 2491, I’ve had many experiences with similar attempts at revisionist history from anti-GE/GMO people who insist that the bill never intended to drive GE agriculture off the island, but instead targeted pesticide use.
When I mentioned this on the air, Hooser replied: “As the author of that bill, I would dispute that statement.” He is, after all, one of the county’s top elected officials, which made me question if I was remembering things correctly. So I went back to the original language of Bill 2491.
It said: “The County of Kauai, more than any other county in the State of Hawaii, has become a location of increasing commercial agriculture operations that utilize genetically modified organisms … not approved for human consumption or release into the open environment.”
The bill proposed a ban on GE/GMO crops, masquerading as a “moratorium” that would prohibit this variety of agriculture pending completion of a county environmental impact statement (which the county was in no position to undertake) and have the practical effect of outlawing GEs/GMOs.
“Biological contamination of the conventional and organic agricultural crops grown within the County of Kauai … can have devastating economic impacts.” The bill continued: “The moratorium will further continue until the county has developed and put into place a permitting process sufficient to protect the residents and environment” from GE/GMO farming.
Unlike the disjointed political discourse on this subject in Maui County, elected officials on our island soon realized that the provisions of Bill 2491 that would effectively outlaw GE/GMO agriculture had no scientific basis or justification. Former County Council Chair Jay Furfaro and Councilmember JoAnn Yukimura led an effort to strip nearly all of the baseless anti-GE/GMO provisions from the bill, leaving it to address pesticide use exclusively.
In fact, pesticide use was transformed into an issue whose strategy was intended to suppress GE/GMO farming under the pretext of concern about pesticides. One need do nothing except note that the only companies that would fall under the provisions of the bill just so happen to be seed companies developing GE/GMO products. It was the ultimate proxy war.
This is all relevant because it serves as proof that the anti-GE/GMO crowd has tried to rewrite history and depict itself as a movement purely focused on pesticides. And this effort has been led — or at least helped along — by the principal sponsor of the legislation.
The radio show on which Hooser and I were being interviewed had invited us because he and I have very different views of the draft conclusions and recommendations in the JFFG report. When the draft first appeared, there were expressions of relief among people who have a non-hysterical perspective on the GE/GMO-pesticide controversy.
It found no evidence of adverse health effects on Kauai from pesticides: No cancer clusters. No birth defect clusters. No insidious water pollution. In fact, between release of the draft report and a public meeting at which it was discussed, the Kauai Department of Water conducted extensive testing to see if our water contains traces of the pesticide chlorpyrifos and found the levels were ZERO.
The draft report urges finding ways to get better and more complete information on pesticides, including adverse risks from chronic low-level exposure. No one would oppose that. It urges that focused, scientific perspectives be developed on whether buffer zones around GE/GMO fields would prevent harmful pesticide exposure. But, importantly, the draft report stops short of demanding buffer zones because there isn’t enough evidence to establish that they would have anything except psychological effects.
Since the draft report appeared, however, the faction that tried to sew the seeds of panic about GE/GMO agriculture has attempted to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and maintains that the report agrees with them by calling for an immediate mandate for buffer zones. It doesn’t do that.
Nowhere in the document will you find the phrase “precautionary principle,” which has become more a political term of art than a scientific one. Immediately after the draft was released, the fringe began calling for imposition of the “precautionary principle,” which in this context would mean banning pesticide use until all pesticides are unequivocally proven absolutely safe. That’s a standard that water, milk and peanuts, among other things, could not meet.
Two members of the JFFG quit the group because its process seemed to be running off the rails. Right now, the consultant who facilitated this process is working on the final version — hopefully paying attention to dozens of comments that have come in from the public. Some of them are online at: http://www.bettercropshawaii.com/home/community-feedback-on-the-kauai-joint-fact-finding-group-draft-report/
Yes, you will find comments by me there, along with those of others.
The JFFG has a critical challenge. It must clarify what its draft report was supposed to mean in a variety of areas ranging from what is and is not known about pesticide hazards and what steps an intelligent public policy approach would take as a result.
The JFFG has been led by Peter Adler, of the Honolulu-based Accord3 Network. He has had to negotiate a fine line that even the world’s best tightrope walkers would probably fear. The report needs clarity so its meaning does not continue to be the source of misinformation and disinformation. The fundamental factual raw materials are there. The report won’t help resolve this islandwide controversy until revisions make it far less open to misinterpretation.
Allan Parachini is a former journalist and PR executive. He is a Kilauea resident.