JFF report clears things up about pesticides on Kauai

When the Joint Fact Finding Study Group (JFFG) probing the ramifications of pesticide use by large agribusiness seed companies on Kauai released its draft report last month, political opportunists and political nonprofits raising money to support an anti-GMO agenda thought they had blundered into a gold mine.

They ignored the carefully crafted language relating, for example, to establishing buffer zones around pesticide application operations and transliterated what the JFFG wrote into a ringing endorsement of buffer zones. But that wasn’t true, as the draft report actually called for solid research to determine if buffer zones can actually work and, if so, how they should be designed.

Appearance Wednesday of the JFFG’s final report makes clear that, while the group itself was dominated by anti-GMO/pesticide people with various self-interests to protect, this last version is intended to neutralize some of the liberties taken with the draft and to more meaningfully express the group’s thoughts on how this work can translate into sound public policy.

To begin with, in emphatic new language added for this final version, the JFFG observes:

“It is important to note that an association is not proof of causation. Further, due to small population numbers on the Westside, most of these measures cannot be considered statistically significant. We also note that Westside communities have worse health statistics for certain conditions that are not directly associated with pesticides.”

With that one paragraph, the final report demolishes many of the core arguments that have been thrown into the political winds since Bill 2491 was introduced by County Councilmember Gary Hooser more than three years ago.

It also puts into a few terse words what many observers have hesitated to say out of reluctance to create hurt feelings in Westside communities. The concern was that they might feel singled out for their worse than average rates of smoking, diabetes and obesity that underlie most established medical explanations of health effects the anti-GMO crowd wants to attribute exclusively to pesticides.

Gathering momentum, the final report disposes of the buffer zone question in this unadorned fashion:

“It is important to know this report is not recommending any specific buffer zones, such as those that would have been required by Kauai County Bill 2491. Instead, this recommendation is to establish a consistent policy that would take into account scientific and regulatory studies along with relevant pesticide monitoring data to be collected.

“Any setbacks should be applied to all large-scale users of RUPs in the state as well as smaller users who may use larger amounts of [restricted use pesticides] on a still to-be-determined volume and number of pesticide applications.”

Besides, the report notes in passing, there already are at least two buffer zone requirements under existing federal and state pesticide regulations.

And in this observation, the JFFG has broken critically important new ground. It concludes, in effect, that assessment of the risks of pesticide use on Kauai should extend to not just the four seed companies that have been politically targeted because they grow GMO crops, but to smaller, more conventional and even organic farms that are the darlings of the anti-GMO movement. The JFFG even had one member, Louisa Wooten, who is a professional advocate for organic farming, a field that has come to be driven so heavily by marketing forces that it is known as “Big O,” compared to “Big Ag,” the traditional bogeyman for the organics industry and lobby.

Again and again, this final report demolishes many of the so-called known facts about pesticides on our island. Random examples:

w While pesticide protestors have contended that the so-called seed company “chemical cartel” has poisoned Kauai’s drinking water, numerous sampling programs have found scant evidence of that. In fact, a test by the Kauai County Department of Water to search for traces of the controversial pesticide chlorpyrifos, as well as dozens of other toxins found nothing.

w Kauai is just over 562 square miles, or 354,000 acres. The report establishes an interesting context, which is that the four seed companies lease only 13,400 acres of those 562 square miles — less than 4 percent — and they only actively farm 1,841 acres. Kauai Coffee, which was included in the JFFG’s study because it uses some pesticides to grow its legendary coffee strains, works 3,100 acres.

w “When comparing application rates per acre for the 16 (restricted use pesticide) active ingredients used on Kauai versus in mainland corn states, Kauai seed companies appear to be applying roughly 0.8 to 1.7 times the amount of different herbicides and roughly 1 to 3 times the amount of different insecticides per acre.” The report notes that, for a variety of reasons, Mainland versus Kauai pesticide use may be a more complicated comparison, but it seems clear that pesticide use here isn’t much different than on the Mainland, though the Kauai operations use a greater variety of pesticides.

w While there are conflicts in data on such issues as birth defects and cancer incidence on Kauai, at the heart of these inconsistencies is that local physicians, most of whom lack substantial experience in epidemiologic research, insist they have seen abnormally high numbers of such patients, but those supposed statistics conflict with what has been reported in the broader medical literature.

w This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Kauai Veterans Memorial Hospital on the Westside, where many of these doctors practice, still uses an antiquated paper records system, “and may contribute to missing data and possibly skewed statistics.”

Appendices with the final report also include a bizarre analysis by one of the two physicians on the JFFG panel, Dr. Douglas Wilmore, a retired surgeon, that tries to make a case that the number of highway miles between Waimea and Hanalei explains what he contends are higher incidence rates of pesticide-related health problems. In essence, Wilmore seems to suggest that the farther you drive from Waimea on Kuhio and Kaumualii Highways, the healthier you are.

The JFFG’s letter transmitting its report to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture and Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. says of this purported research: “Dr. Wilmore chose to undertake his own independent research without participation by other members of the JFF Study Group. His statistical analysis and viewpoints are his own and do not reflect the opinions of the JFFG. His analysis was not included in the main report, and should not be construed as having any direct influence on the report’s findings and recommendations.” His paper is relegated to an appendix.

In all, this final report has much to say that emanates from scientifically honest logic and research. The big question is whether this dispassionate work will be enough to silence the extremist critics and help pave the way for Kauai to move, finally, beyond this tragically divisive issue that has so torn apart the fabric of our island.

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Allan Parachini is a former journalist and PR executive. He is a Kilauea resident

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