The 2017 session of the Hawaii state legislature saw at least 17 bills introduced that deal with pesticide regulation, with many going far beyond what is federally mandated by the EPA. A majority of the proposed legislation claims that these restrictive measures are necessary because of perceived harm to the public or the environment, though the supporting evidence is absent or negligible at best.
The main target of these measures is the group of large biotech seed companies which conduct year-round hybridization and seed increase in their corn breeding programs on Kauai, Maui, Molokai and Oahu. Commercial corn breeding programs have been in Hawaii for at least 50 years, though their presence here only became a source of controversy among those opposed to modern agriculture after the introduction of genetically engineered crops in 1996.
Study after study has concluded that genetically engineered crops are just as safe as crops developed from other methods of plant breeding. This made it increasingly difficult to justify efforts to restrict GE crops, along with the widespread acceptance in Hawaii of GE papayas bred to resist the virus that devastates non-GE papayas in the main production areas.
Soon though, the steadfast opponents of agricultural biotechnology found they could more easily scare the general public, and some sympathetic lawmakers, by focusing on pesticides, in particular the restricted use pesticides (RUPs) applied by the seed companies.
As with the issue of safety of GE crops, evidence is also lacking that RUPs used by the seed companies are a significant problem in Hawaii. Publicly available data for 2014 (here and here) indicate that 97% of the total amount of RUPs used by the seed companies in Kauai and Maui counties was less toxic than vitamin D3, and 93% was less toxic than Aspirin. (Beware the medicine cabinet.)
At the national level, this is in agreement with the USDA’s study of the characteristics of pesticides used on corn, soybean and cotton over a 40 year period, showing chronic toxicity, application rate and persistence in the environment all declining:
Improved pesticides and GE seed contributed to the general decline in application rate.
Average chronic toxicity declined dramatically due to banning more toxic insecticides in the 1970s and early 1980’s, then through use of less toxic insecticides, and the use of GE cotton since 1996.
Persistence has declined with the emergence of GE crops reflecting the increased use of glyphosate which has relatively low persistence compared to the herbicides that it has replaced.
The studies in Hawaii with actual data on pesticides in the air and water (here, here and here) have shown they are either non-detectable or detected in such small amounts that they are not a health concern. And let’s remember that the RUP used in the greatest amount in Hawaii is chlorine, which is injected into our domestic water supply to make it safe, and we drink, cook and bathe with it daily. Vikane gas is a RUP used in Hawaii for controlling termites that would otherwise consume our homes. Those claiming (with no evidence) that risks from agricultural pesticides are unacceptable fail to address the routine exposure the public has with other RUPs through daily consumption of water and by tenting their homes for termites.
Targeting pesticides to squeeze or push biotech seed companies out of Hawaii is bound to cause a lot of collateral damage to the rest of Hawaii’s agriculture and beyond unless policy makers take a principled stand on evidence-based science. Many other farmers, ranchers, homeowners and government agencies use general and restricted pesticides, including imidacloprids and glyphosate, which the anti-biotech folks want restricted beyond what the EPA requires. The zeal to vilify pesticides and attach more red tape to their use comes with high risks of unintended consequences due to a lack of understanding and familiarity with the science behind modern agriculture.
In summary, the best evidence available shows that the pesticides used in Hawaii’s agriculture are not a significant risk in terms of acute or chronic human toxicity or to the environment.
Pesticides are essential to the sustainability of Hawaii’s diversified agriculture, where the greatest risk is not to use them. For those not familiar with challenges of local agriculture, here are some examples that illustrate why pesticides are used (in a pdf file):