Study: Pesticides in paradise

Hawaii became the first in the nation to ban the restricted-use pesticide chlorpyrifos in June 2018.

While conservationists applauded the effort, agribusiness corporations cautioned the bill used to enact the ban places too many restrictions on pesticide use. They say that could impact small farmers in the midst of a Hawaii effort to grow more local food.

One report that’s been influential in the debate is the Kauai JFF Pesticide report, released in 2016. The below story takes a look at it’s results:

KAUAI, HAWAII — There isn’t enough data to conclusively connect pesticide use on Kauai to the health of the environment and of the community, according to the group that spent 15 months researching the subject.

The Joint Fact Finding Group released its final report in May 2016 on its investigation into

the effects of pesticide use by Syngenta, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont Pioneer, BASF Plant Science and Kauai Coffee.“The basic message is: Here’s what we could examine and we couldn’t tell if there were environmental or health harms (connected to pesticide use),” said Lee Evslin, who has been a pediatrician on Kauai for more than 30 years. “It called for better environmental and perhaps biologic testing and that’s the real way we’ll know if we have a problem.”

Members of GMO Free Kauai participated in the March Against Monsanto rally in May 2016 by sign-waving along Kuhio Highway in Kapaa.

The Hawaii Crop Improvement Association — which represents the companies involved in the seed industry — is taking a positive look at the report, and says it confirms the industry’s practices are not harmful.

“The JFF group’s investigation into the island’s seed and coffee industry was unable to validate any of the wild health and environmental claims of the Bill 2491 controversy,” HCIA said in a statement. “While the JFF took a very aggressive tone, it could identify no health or environmental impacts associated with the industry’s pesticide use.”

Blake Drolson, of GMO Free Kauai, said he agrees that more research is needed on pesticides and their connection to health and environmental issues.

“What the JFF report makes clear is that in many cases we don’t find problems with pesticide use because we are not collecting the data needed to determine if any problems exist,” Drolson said. “Our government bodies need to do much more to ensure the health and well-being of island residents.”

Just a few changes

In the final draft’s transmittal letter, Peter Adler, project director, explained the purpose of the group’s investigation was to “understand if agricultural pesticide usage on Kauai is as dangerous and damaging as critics asserted, or as safe and innocuous as the biotechnology companies claimed in response.”

Adler said the final report only differs from the group’s March 10 draft report in a few ways, besides clarifying some of the language in the executive summary and including a few more details on the Environmental Protection Agency’s approval process.

One of the differences is the inclusion of Kauai’s Department of Water testing in March, which found no presence of the chemical chlorpyrifos in the areas tested.

“On the positive side, they did the water testing on four sites within a week of us asking and they didn’t find any pesticides,” Evslin said. “That’s very good, positive news and that’s the kind of thing you can get out of proper environmental testing.”

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Buffer zones were also addressed a bit differently in the report’s recommendations.

“The Pesticide Advisory Council should review similar efforts elsewhere and establish a comprehensive buffer zone policy for the State,” the final JFF report’s recommendation reads. “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.”

The recommendation also broadens the scope of a buffer zone policy to any size farm that uses restricted use pesticides at a level to be determined in the future, not just the biotech industry.

Additionally, the final draft includes personal statements from some those involved in the JFF group, and that the Kauai legislative delegation has secured $500,000 for monitoring and studies.

In a written statement, HCIA representatives said the organization has a few concerns about the report, including that it goes “far beyond its stated mission, and is targeting other agricultural operations as well as other industries.”

“HCIA has some concerns about the report including its recommendations for a shotgun approach to oversight, often by agencies with no subject matter expertise,” the statement said. “That said, we will work with governmental regulatory agencies to improve continued science-based oversight.”

It was a long road

Adler and his assistant project director Keith Mattson wrote that they recognized the “controversial nature of what has been accomplished” and said that they believe pesticides use by biotech companies will continue to be a “divisive issue.”

In total, the group spent more than 2,500 hours in 2015 gathering data, and then after a public meeting early in 2016, they went through each and every comment submitted throughout the process.

Evslin said that everyone in the group had equal opportunity to weigh in on everything that was put in the report.

“It was an interesting process because every paragraph would have several people working on it,” Evslin said. “It was certainly intense.”

He said one of the biggest surprises came in early April, when Gerardo Rojas Garcia, a site manager at Dow AgroSciences and Sarah Styan, a senior research manager at DuPont Pioneer, walked away from the group mid-meeting.

“It happened all of the sudden, the day after our public meeting and I’m not really sure why it happened in that fashion,” he said.

The group stayed on track, though, and followed the process they originally had laid out with six people instead of the original nine. Roy Yamakawa, retired county administrator for the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, resigned Jan. 3.

Just the beginning

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Now that the JFF study group has finalized its recommendations, the next step is to work toward implementation.

Fern Rosenstiel, a marine biology major who is running for District 14 in the state House of Representatives, said Kauai has been waiting for many years for the very recommendations that were handed down from the report, and that “clearly we don’t have the data we need.”

“Absence of proof is not proof of absence, as I recently heard someone explain quite well,” Rosensteil said. “The time has come for the state to step up and take responsibility. Our communities deserve these basic protections statewide.”

She plans to schedule a meeting with Gov. David Ige to chat about the report, as she did when the draft was released.

“We ask that the honorable Governor Ige immediately move to protect Hawaii and enact policies to protect our communities and environment,” Rosensteil said.

Connecting pesticide use and GE issues

Evslin stressed the group did not study genetically modified, or genetically engineered foods and crops, but instead focused on pesticides, but several community organizations are hoping to connect the two issues.

“Our hope is that this analysis can used across the island chain where GE (genetically engineered) experimentation is being conducted,” said Jeri Di Pietro, president and co-founder of Hawaii SEED.

Danya Hakeem, program director for Hawaii Center for Food Safety, explained there is great concern over the effects of pesticides on the community and the environment, but she said addressing GE seeds is equally important.

“The debate over genetic engineering and pesticides has become so contentious. We must continue to engage voices from all sides of the debate, and support processes to help us resolve difficult issues,” Hakeem said.

Written for The Garden Island Newspaper, printed May 2016. Photos by Jessica Else.

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Jessica Else is an award-winning journalist and author, currently living in the Pacific Northwest. While she's dabbled in many subjects during her writing career, Jess enjoys writing about agriculture and sustainability projects, endangered animals, health and wellness, festivals and food, and outdoor adventuring.

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