If one biotech critic's allegations were true, it would justify public 'outrage' — but they are not.
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On February 27, Paul Achitoff of the group Earth Justice opened an op-ed in Civil Beat with the emotive claim that “the genetic engineered crop industry is “dousing the Garden Isle with extremely toxic chemicals.”
If that claim were true it would obviously justify the kind of “outrage” that Achitoff cites.
However, his article is filled with inaccurate, misleading, and completely false statements.
He tries to make the case that something about the biotech corn nurseries in Hawaii leads to dangers from extraordinary pesticide use.
Science and publicly available data shows otherwise.
Achitoff focuses on a specific chemical called chlorpyrifos, which was not, as he claims, “developed during World War II as a nerve gas.”
In fact, it was developed in 1965, specifically as an insecticide.
Although it falls into a very broad family of products called organophosphates, it is not an example from that class that is “extremely toxic.”
It is classified by the EPA as “moderately toxic.” This puts it in the same range of toxicity with familiar chemicals like caffeine, the capsaicin in hot peppers, aspirin, or copper sulfate — a fungicide commonly used in organic production.
It is classified as “essentially non-toxic” in animal, dermal (skin exposure) toxicity studies.
Like any pesticide, it needs to be handled with care, but by no stretch of the imagination is it the terrifying agent that Achitoff portrays.
In fact, until 2000, chlorpyrifos was the mostly widely used insecticide for in-home pest control (roaches, ants, fleas…).
That particular use was withdrawn, not because the EPA belatedly learned of some previously unrecognized hazard, but because of the desire to move the bar toward a lower threshold of risk for that very sensitive setting.
The agricultural uses of chlorpyrifos have continued because, after an extensive re-registration review process, the EPA concluded that there were adequate rules and procedures with which the insecticide could be used by farmers without any undue risks to people or the environment.
In California, where the state-level environmental regulations are among the most restrictive, chlorpyrifos remains registered and widely used.
In 2011 it was applied on nearly 1.2 million acres, across 73 different crops, at an average of 1.1 pounds of active ingredient per treated acre.
Proper agricultural use of chlorpyrifos does not put the general population at risk either in California or in Hawaii.
Achitoff claims that the use of pesticides on the “GMO crops” in Kauai is at extraordinarily higher rates or frequencies than in “typical conventional farming.”
That is completely false.
The data from the new, Good Neighbor program, which Achitoff himself cites, clearly shows use of chlorpyrifos at ~1 pound/acre — just under the average rate used in California.
To visualize one pound per acre, imagine spreading one level teaspoon of table salt over a square area measuring 32 feet by 32 feet.
“Doused” isn’t really a very good term for that kind of quantity.
Publicly available data (which was misused in the campaign for Bill 2491) showed that the combined use of all restricted-use pesticides on each acre of Kauai’s corn nurseries is extremely similar to that used on each acre of corn in the Midwest.
There is nothing out of the ordinary regarding the amounts or frequency of application of chlorpyrifos or other chemicals on this corn.
The levels are also much lower than that used on many fruits or vegetable crops, including organics.
Finally, Achitoff draws erroneous conclusions from the extensive air sampling study conducted in response to an event at Waimea Canyon Middle School.
The highly qualified researchers from the University of Hawaii concluded: “concentrations of the pesticides and MITC were well below health concern exposure limits or applicable screening levels.”
Simply having the ability to detect chemicals in the nanogram-per-liter range does not demonstrate any plausible potential for harm.
Achitoff further argues that chlorpyrifos “evaporates” from the corn on sunny days and “blows into the wind, wafting into schoolyards, playgrounds, and backyards…” Chlorpyrifos residue on a leaf is a solid so it does not evaporate.
It can vaporize to a limited extent, but even at levels far higher than ever recorded from a field application, exposure studies with rats showed no toxicity issues.
The companies involved in the corn seed nurseries have taken the voluntary step of adhering to larger-than-mandated buffer zone rules around sensitive sites.
Whatever the motivations of the Earth Justice organization may be, what they are effectively doing is misusing this and other public information to promote fear among the citizens of Hawaii – fear that is unnecessary.
About the author:Dr. Savage is an independent consultant with extensive experience in the fields of biotechnology, chemical pest control, plant genetics, and sustainability.
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