In an overdue effort to inject local data and facts into the red-hot, never-ending debate over commercial pesticide use in Hawaii, the state Department of Agriculture and the County of Kauai commissioned a report in late 2014.

That report was intended to address public concerns over the effects of pesticides used by big seed companies such as DuPont Pioneer and Syngenta.

And in what seems good news for concerned members of the public, the subsequent, 105-page draft report, released last week by the Joint Fact Finding Study Group, found no evidence of public health problems or environmental issues caused by pesticide use on Kauai, where the research was conducted.

This, after an investment of more than 2,000 hours of research by study group members “with diverse orientations and strong science backgrounds in different disciplines,” drawn from agricultural businesses and organizations on all sides of the debate.

A taro field in Hanalei, Kauai. A study of pesticide use and impacts on the island is sparking controversy among growers, which include some of the largest multinational companies in agribusiness.
A study of pesticide use and impacts on the island is sparking controversy among growers, which include some of the largest multinational companies in agribusiness. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2011

But from the beginning, the report was destined to add fuel to the fire, due to a huge, fundamental problem: Pesticide use data isn’t being collected.

Without knowing how much, how often and what kinds of pesticides are being applied, it’s hard for anyone to draw credible scientific conclusions regarding health and environmental impacts.

What Do You Think?

Other shortcomings only complicated the study further — “patchy and fragmented information, incomplete and often important but proprietary data, small statistical samples, confounding demographic variables, a lack of solid human and environmental health exposure data, and evolving scientific and regulatory views.”

Even with those challenges, the group’s sampling efforts “detected levels of two (restricted use products), atrazine and metolachlor, that exceeded EPA environmental benchmarks and most likely came from recent use on seed industry fields.”

So the group did what any responsible collection of scientists should do in the face of insufficient data and partial findings showing an elevated environmental presence of potentially dangerous chemicals: It recommended further study to get at the facts; and it called for moderate changes in the meantime to ensure the public’s safety.

Seems reasonable, no? Not if you’re a seed company official.

“Our view is that while focused and comprehensive regulation is important, the report’s unsystematic approach is not based on scientific findings, and will create substantial additional costs for taxpayers and consumers,” Bennette Misalucha, executive director of a local seed industry trade group, the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, said in statement shared with Civil Beat.

That trade group includes Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer, Dow AgroSciences and BASF, five multi-billion-dollar multinationals that produce the state’s largest export crop — seed corn — and farm thousands of acres across our islands.

The companies expressed most concern about ideas that have failed before in the Legislature — establishment of “buffer zones” around places where pesticides are being applied, disclosure of restricted use pesticides and, more broadly, a “major update of Hawaii’s pesticide laws and regulation.”

State Cool To The Report

But if the seed companies’ opposition to the report was predictable, the chilly response from state Agriculture Director Scott Enright was a surprise.

Enright told Civil Beat that Agriculture is unlikely to impose buffer zones or require field workers who apply restricted use pesticides to undergo medical checks.

And his reasoning for doing so was confounding: The report found no statistically significant evidence that pesticide use by Big Ag is harming Kauai’s environment or public health.

But the report stated that it could not provide definitive conclusions because of fundamental data issues.

Those in Hawaii who are concerned about the effects of pesticides, particularly restricted use pesticides, on people and the environment might be forgiven for feeling as though they’re caught in an unfortunate loop. The state won’t regulate pesticide use more strictly because the chemicals haven’t been shown to cause harm in Hawaii. But the state also refuses to require disclosure and data collection that would allow reasonable scientific judgments to be made on whether the pesticides are problematic.

No Data? No Problem!

The Joint Fact Finding Study Group draft report is hardly a perfect or even peer-reviewed scientific document. But it does underscore the many data deficiencies in the current environment — shortcomings that could have serious implications for the health of Hawaii residents and the environmental health of our islands.

Perhaps its key recommendations are aimed at Gov. David Ige.

“The Office of the Governor must provide the high-level leadership needed to ensure data-informed action,” the report says.

And it also calls on Ige to champion pesticide issues and ensure that state agencies have the resources to implement actions recommended in the report.

We support that recommendation, particularly in the face of seeming reluctance at Agriculture to take action, and in light of the call for reasonable actions at the departments of Education, Health and Land and Natural Resources, as well as in the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

Community fears, concerns and discord won’t be solved taking an approach to pesticide data that more resembles Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First?” routine than a proper scientific discussion.

Public comment on the report is being accepted for a few more weeks. And a public meeting is scheduled on Kauai for April 4.

The governor can best address the unrest by insisting that proper data is collected. While that data is being collected, he should take prudent steps — including buffer zones and stronger pesticide disclosure requirements — to protect public and environmental health, even if there is only a hint that either might be endangered.

The Joint Fact Finding Study Group has done a great service to the people of Hawaii in bringing the matters included in its report this far. The governor — and other senior administrative officials and legislators — must take over from here, and waste no time doing so.

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