The Economist April 9th 2016
Poisonous debates rage around pesticides and those using them
IN 1893 the overthrow of Hawaii's last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, involved powerful plantation owners backed by American forces. When sugar and pineapple operations eventually declined, agricultural biotechnology firms set up during the 1960s: Monsanto, Basf, Syngenta, Dow AgroSciences and DuPont-Pioneer, which all remain in place. But big agricultural interests still seem to inspire little trust in the state. An argument over pesticide use has settled like a fine mist over the operations of these companies.
Over half a billion pounds (600,000kg) of pesticides are used in America each year; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates their distribution, sale and application. Much of its oversight is delegated to state departments of agriculture. The EPA distinguishes between "general use" pesticides, for all and sundry, and "restricted use pesticides" (RUPS) for application only by those qualified to do so. These types are among the most regulated and most toxic.
In Hawaii 1.3m pounds of active ingredients contained within RUPS were sold in 2013. Hungry termites meant 36% of the stuff was used for urban and structural purposes; 32% went on agricultural ones. But patchier data since make it difficult to ascertain what exactly is sprayed where in Hawaii, and by whom. Groups on different sides of the debate try to fill in the gaps. According to calculations by the Centre for Food Safety, an advocacy outfit, 17 times more restricted-use insecticides, which target bugs, are unleashed per acre on maize crops on the island of Kauai than are used on America's mainland.
Hawaii is far better known for its surfers than its farmers. Yet the land devoted to seed crops increased tenfold between 1982 and 2011 (biochemical firms own about 25,000 of the 1.4m acres used for farming in the state). The tropical climate allows three harvests a year, meaning biotech wizards can produce new inbred seeds in about half the time it would otherwise take, according to Shay Sunderland, who works at Monsanto's Kunia site on the island of Oahu. Parent inbred seeds from Hawaii are then used to produce hybrid plants from Brazil to Pakistan.
Critics say pesticides used in this process harm the health of Hawaiians and their children. Some oppose genetically modified crops altogether. State legislation to introduce buffer zones around recently sprayed fields failed to pass last year. But since 2013 several Hawaiian counties have passed ordinances, now tied up in the courts, to regulate application more closely or banish hybrid operations altogether. More than $2m was spent on television advertising—from a group backed by firms including Monsanto and Syngenta - ahead of a vote in Maui County alone.
Agricultural firms say the furore is unfair for several reasons. Less than a third of their land is in use at any one time. Second, pesticides add greatly to their input costs, so wanton use of them is out of the question. Third, they operate under more intense scrutiny than other RUP - spreaders such as gardeners and groundsmen. On 16 occasions between 2006 and 2014 a school was evacuated because of pesticide drift.
In more than half these cases the nasties were sprayed by householders, according to Hawaii's Department of Agriculture. Its head, Scott Enright, says biotech companies apply pesticides in the state "better than anybody ever has".
The debate has inspired a smattering of local research, but little across Hawaii. A recent draft report from a group appointed to look into pesticide use on Kauai conducted that such chemicals are not harming residents or their surroundings. It also revealed the scarcity of relevant data to study. There is "very little robust environmental testing" and there are "no data from human samples" - blood, urine or tissue - to indicate levels of exposure to pesticides on the island. The authors also note that some local doctors contest the patchy records on birth defects provided by Hawaii's Department of Health.
Biotechnology companies in Hawaii release increasing amounts of information to the public about their spraying activities. Mr Enright is keen to take one voluntary local reporting scheme statewide. More detailed knowledge of the geographical co-ordinates and a survey of firms' field-base maps could help determine more exactly how much of a restricted-use pesticide is being sprayed in one place at one time. Such information from seed companies, and the many others spraying away, would calm controversy; more accurate exposure testing and fairer regulation could follow. The current dearth of data sows only seeds of discontent. ■
SO IT GOES ALONG, MODERN SPACE-AGE WHATEVERS SPRAYED ON THIS AND THAT; SEED ALTERATION; MAN MESSING WITH THE NATURAL CREATION AND GOING CONTRARY TO ORGANIC FARMING........
AND WE WONDER WHY WE HAVE CONSTANT BATTLING WITH HEALTH AND WELL-BEING.
THE GREEN-BACK, THE MIGHTY "DOLLAR" OFTEN WINS THE DAY OVER GETTING BACK TO THE OLD ORGANIC WAY OF LIFE.
THOUSANDS OF YEARS AGO GOD TOLD ANCIENT ISRAEL THAT IF THEY WOULD OBEY HIM, KEEP HIS LAWS HE GAVE THEM, THEY WOULD HAVE NONE OF THESE DISEASES THAT EGYPT HAD.
AS GOD WORD SAYS, THERE IS A WAY THAT SEEMS RIGHT UNTO MEN, BUT THE WAYS THEREOF ARE THE WAYS OF DEATH.