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    A Week On An Island Of Angst
    By Steve Savage | August 6th 2013 12:43 AM | 4 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Steve

    Trained as a plant pathologist (Ph.D. UC Davis 1982), I've worked now for >30 years in many aspects of agricultural technology (Colorado State...

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    I've just returned from a week on Kauai.  It is known as "The Garden Isle" of the Hawaiian chain, but recently that garden has been heavily sown with seeds of fear, suspicion, and conspiratorial narratives.

    On Wednesday, the 31st of July, there was a marathon session of the County Council during which hundreds of people lined up to give testimony about Bill 2491 from 1 pm until midnight.  Angst was a common theme. The activist speakers made hyperbolic assertions about heartless corporations perfectly willing to sicken the entire population of the island and destroy the environment. Many non-agricultural residents expressed their palpable fear for the safety of their families. 

    Some of the employees of the seed or coffee companies tried to explain to their fellow islanders that they and their families also live there, and so they would never want to put either their families or neighbors at risk. These people have good reason to worry about the future of their jobs.

    This Is Actually About Biotech, But...

    Kevin Folta, head of the horticulture department at the University of Florida, was there for the week to represent a truly independent, scientific perspective on the safety of biotechnology.  

    He was quite effective because of his willingness to engage in dialog with even the most dedicated wing of anti-GMO camp.   I was there to offer some perspective on the pesticides used.

     Activists are targeting the biotech industry, but the primary means through which they have been generating fear has been by talking about a list of "Restricted-use pesticides" employed by the coffee and seed industries. 

    Strategically, the focus on pesticides makes perfect sense for the activists.  Unlike plant biotechnology, pesticides had a "bad old days" during which legitimately scary things happened.  In the present campaign, these sorts of events are highlighted without any perspective on how much change there has been over the last 44 years since the EPA was established in 1970.

    Most people know something about the dramatic improvements society has seen since that particular era when it comes to automobile safety, control of exposure to secondary smoke, protection against egregious manifestations or racial and gender discrimination.  Most people have a concept of how far we have come since the 1960s with regard to a host of technologies in medicine and electronics.  

    What is unfamiliar to most people outside of agriculture is that there have been comparably dramatic improvements with respect to the safety of agricultural pest control technologies.  For the most part, only farmers have witnessed this change.  Others doubt the progress on the regulatory front, convinced that all regulatory agencies have either been bought-off by nefarious industry influence or rendered impotent by funding limitations.  Anyone who has worked in a heavily regulated industry like farming or pesticide manufacturing knows otherwise, but that knowledge base represents a tiny fraction of the population.

    At the hearing (and in public forums, press interviews and meetings with business leaders), I simply attempted to use data from transparent, public sources to put what are actually not-so-scary-pesticides into perspective (see a previous post with more details).  That was helpful, but only in settings where were able to have a real conversation.  I think the most effective way for people to relieve their angst is to take the seed companies up on their offer to provide tours of the research farms so people can see first-hand the sort of safety precautions used and the extensive documentation required to meet regulatory requirements for multiple agencies at the federal, state, and county level.  

    Inexplicably, the council members who introduced Bill 2491 have yet to take such a tour. Why try to understand something you try to legislate against? 

    What I witnessed at the Council Hearing suggested how politically difficult it is going to be for other local elected representatives to resist the pressure to legislate based on fear rather than facts.  The activists are also expanding the campaign of fear to discourage the tourist industry, which is actually the life-blood of the local economy.  

    Can they generate as much angst there as they have with residents? Tourists may be harder to reach, but in an on-line age when many people's standard of truth has become, "I saw something about that on the internet," it is sadly possible.

    As my plane climbed to afford me a last, beautiful view, I thought back to the first time I visited Kauai in 1993, only months after the devastating blow from Hurricane Iniki.  At that time, broken-over trees still dominated the landscape.  The natural systems of the island are self-healing and the evidence of that storm is now essentially gone. The current storm of activism impacting Kauai is a campaign that claims to be about stopping the "poisoning of paradise."

    The human experience of that paradise is an experience of the mind informed by the senses. That potential joy has indeed been poisoned by the intentional mass-cultivation of angst on the Garden Island. 

    You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com.  I tweet about new posts @grapedoc

    Image of  "The Scream" by Edvard Munch from CHRISTOPHER MACSURAK

    Protester image my own


    Gerhard Adam
    The activist speakers made hyperbolic assertions about heartless corporations perfectly willing to sicken the entire population of the island and destroy the environment.
    While one can't assert that every situation is comparable, let's keep in mind that during the same week we have:
    BP in November agreed to plead guilty to 14 criminal charges stemming from the accident as well as to $4 billion in fines and penalties.
    BP already pleaded guilty to criminal charges and agreed to a record-setting $4 billion fine for the spill. But it could face more than $20 billion in additional environmental penalties if found to have committed gross negligence in the disaster.
    On Thursday, the Department of Justice announced that Halliburton had agreed to plead guilty to criminally destroying evidence in the investigation of the BP Gulf oil spill in 2010. The company “signed a cooperation and guilty plea agreement,” will pay the maximum fine of $200,000, and undergo three years of probation.
    So, in just a quick review of this week and the past few months, we see sterling examples of corporate behavior and how they don't want to hurt people, or their families, or the environment.  When this is coupled with the latest scam from Goldman Sachs, it's hard to not simply slam one's fist down and say "NO" to almost anything suggested by a corporation.


    While I agree that it isn't fair to paint all corporations with the same brush, the fact remains, that unless people start seeing these kinds of stories fade and start seeing a lot more transparency and honesty from corporations, these kinds of protests and concerns will continue.

    The simple fact of the matter is that most corporations talk a good game, and know that no matter what they destroy, they will hardly be held culpable and the officers of these corporations know that they are operating risk-free [unless they steal from stockholders].  Anything short of starting their own nuclear war, they will be free to conduct business as usual.

    It bears saying that none of these corporations intended these events to happen [except Goldman Sachs].  Yet, in the final analysis, business decisions took precedence over prudence.  In most people's minds, the primary question is; "which is the higher priority?  people or profits?" to which they already know the answer.
    THAT is why people are fed up, and are not persuaded by reassurances.  Been there, done that.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard,There is no comparison between the level of regulation between the Gulf Spill-related companies and those producing seed on Kauai.  This isn't just about trusting corporations.  In this case the EPA and USDA play a very big role - the EPA because it was established 44 years ago specifically to deal with pesticide issues and the USDA because unlike almost any other technology in history, the regulatory framework was set up well before commercialization.
    Steve Savage
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Steve have you read Hank's blog about the Hawaiian 'Babes Against Biotech: We'll Exploit Women Until You Hate Science'? It outlines some of their GMO concerns which are quite relevant to your article.
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Helen,I did read that.  As he said, thats not the kind of thing that scientists can do.  Their concerns are quite answerable, but I don't know if they would listen to an old guy
    Steve Savage