Saturday, March 17, 2018

Massive pesticide testing confirms: Hawai`i Surface Waters "Meet State & Federal Water Quality Standards"

Ground zero has somehow slipped away. There is no evidence of widespread pesticide contamination in Hawai`i’s surface waters, according to a thorough federal study of water resources on two islands.
That confirms similar results in separate tests from 2014 and 2016.

It would seem that HAPA, SHAKA, the Center or Food Safety can fold up their tents and go home. Their work is done. If the claims of rampant agricultural pesticide misuse were ever true, they are not true now.

The U.S. Geological Survey conducted 7,200 water tests in 2016 and 2017—one of the broadest scientific investigations ever into allegations of pesticide misuse in the Hawaiian Islands. There were 12 surface water test sites on Kaua`i and 19 on O`ahu.

Here is the state Department of Agriculture public release on USGS testing of water samples at 31 sites on Oahu and Kaua`i, for 225 different pesticides. 

“The sites included streams, ditches, canals, and a wetland– and were near or downstream of agricultural areas, developed areas, or both,” the study said.  Here is the study itself

The short version: The laboratory tests were able to detect pesticides, but all at levels below federally and state levels of concern.

Bizarrely, while the last decade of allegations of pesticide misuse have gained widespread publicity across the state, the proof that those claims were unfounded has slipped almost entirely under the radar.  

The state’s news media allocated pages upon pages of newsprint and web content to pesticide contamination allegations, but almost nothing to the actual scientific proof that these claims were were overblown.
The Garden Island newspaper on Kaua`i, dismissed the study in a brief (9 paragraph) story.  Honolulu-based media have had nothing to date. 

The new USGS study is now being repeated on O`ahu and Kaua`i, and is also being expanded to Maui and Hawai`i counties.

“This multi-year surface water study goes a long way towards assuring the citizenry of Hawaii that pesticides are continuing to be used properly,” said Scott Enright, chair of the Hawaii State Department of Agriculture.

The surface water study is not an outlier. It confirms the conclusions of several previous studies.

It supports information by a groundwater study by an independent California laboratory for the Kaua`i Department of Water Supply in 2016, which found no pesticide levels of concern in groundwater from several Kaua`i agricultural sites. Here is the RaisingIslands coverage of that study. 

That study confirms annual testing by the island’s Water Department of all its drinking water sources. Those tests can be seen here

A statewide surface water testing effort in 2014 had results along the same lines. Here is Honolulu Civil Beat’s piece on that statewide program, which found that most pesticide concerns were in urban streams, and not in agricultural areas. 

As noted above, the new USGS study did not fail to find pesticides, but where it found them they were at exceedingly low levels. Here are some of the notable findings, from the state Department of Agriculture release, including what is being done about those pesticides:

“Chlorpyrifos was detected in two Honouliuli stream samples collected during the same high-flow storm event. The highest concentration of 23.3 ng/l is below the state water quality standard of 83 ng/l and the strictest acute benchmark of 50 ng/l for the protection of freshwater invertebrates. HDOA is currently in the process of restricting the use of chlorpyrifos by reclassifying it to a restricted-use pesticide (RUP) which will allow its use by only state-certified applicators. The proposed restrictions will mirror what California has done and includes required buffer zone. These rules are anticipated to be finalized by this summer.

“Concentrations of flubendiamide in high-flow samples collected at two sites on Oahu exceeded the lowest Federal aquatic-life benchmark. Flubendiamide is an insecticide that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently in the process of cancelling its use due to the risk to aquatic invertebrates and aquatic environments.

“Atrazine, an herbicide and established groundwater contaminant, and an RUP was detected in low-flow samples at three sites, at concentrations more than 100 times lower than the EPA maximum contaminant level for drinking water and the strictest aquatic life benchmarks. This represents a significant drop compared to the 75 percent detection rate in a 2013-14 study. The decline likely reflects the decrease in current atrazine applications and sales statewide after 2015, during the time that saw the closure of a large sugarcane plantation.

“Bromacil is an herbicide and established groundwater contaminant used almost exclusively on pineapple in Hawaii. Bromocil was detected in two areas, one of which is known to have grown pineapple.”

All but one of the samples identified at least one pesticide compound. A total of 61 different pesticides were identified across the two islands. The most commonly identified pesticide was Atrazine—either directly or from a compound that Atrazine degrades into.

Atrazine is a long-lived herbicide that was commonly used in the sugar industry, but is still used to control broadleaf weeds in agriculture today. It is the agricultural chemical most widely detected in water samples across the nation.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2018

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Aluminum tariffs, hotel taxes, electric cars and the value of complexity

Targeted taxes and added regulations always have unintended consequences.

In Hawai`i, when we pile taxes onto hotel rooms, it encourages alternative accommodations that may be able to avoid the tax—thus damaging the hotel industry.

When we regulate the heck out of taxis, it opens the door for Uber and Lyft.

Transportation fuel taxes provide an inadvertent subsidy to electric vehicles. Discussions of fixing that with a mileage tax will punish lower-income people who are forced to live where housing prices are cheaper, but who have to commute longer distances.

When President Trump announced new steel and aluminum tariffs, at first blush it seems sound. If these metals from foreign producers pay a big tax to get into the U.S., then that improves the competitiveness of metals from American producers.

But the unintended consequences are many.

Nearly a year ago, the firm NERA Economic Consulting looked into aluminum tariffs and their impact. They used an economic model from another firm, Regional Economic Models Inc. (REMI).

Among the conclusions: the higher prices from across-the-board tariffs would cost more jobs to the larger economy than they would add to the aluminum industry; and the tariffs would harm the parts of the manufacturing economy that rely on aluminum.

The study suggested that tariffs could be tweaked to actually be productive to the local economy, by targeting semi-finished aluminum products.

But, of course, that’s not what President Trump has proposed.

Tariffs and taxes are complicated. They often don’t produce the results intended.

One of the most concerning impacts of the metals tariffs is that while they may be intended to target our economic competitors, they more directly target our friends.

China is a big aluminum producer, and it has severely cut into our aluminum exports. But our biggest source of aluminum is Canada. Sixty percent of the product comes from our northern neighbor.

So it seems that an aluminum tariff could very well not harm China, but further damage Canada, which is already reeling from China’s growing exports.

Unintended consequences.

Which is a statement about complexity. Complexity breeds suspicion and misunderstanding. But complexity is almost always unavoidable in tax and tariff policy. Difficult subjects need smart people and careful consideration.

Simple solutions can sometimes be worse than no solution at all.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2018

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Fake news: A Russian agricultural disinformation campaign operates in parallel with local anti-GMO efforts and national Russian election interference

It turns out Russia hasn’t only been trying to undermine American politics, but American biotech agriculture as well.

Hawai`i has for a decade or so been a hotbed of anti-science, anti-biotech activism. Now it turns out that a Russian anti-GMO disinformation campaign has been operating in parallel, and also in parallel with Russian interfence in American elections.

A new review betrays the existence of a Russian disinformation conspiracy to undermine the West’s initiatives to use biotechnology to make food healthier, and to make agriculture more sustainable.

Researchers at Iowa State University conducted the probe into the Russian attack on agriculture.  Their paper is entitled “Sowing the seeds of skepticism: Russian state news and the anti-GMO movement.”

It turns out that many of the memes of the anti-GMO movement may be Russian plants. And the authors of the Iowa State paper pulled no punches: “Biotech news coverage in English-language Russian media fits the profile of the Russian information warfare strategy described in recent military reports.”

They suggested that the Russian anti-GMO program had one purely financial goal: to promote Russian agricultural products

 “Distinctive patterns in Russian news provide evidence that Russia is conducting a coordinated campaign to turn public opinion against genetically modified organisms. The recent branding of Russian agriculture as the ecologically clean alternative to genetically engineered foods is suggestive of an economic motive behind the information campaign against western biotechnologies,” the paper said.

Another goal is simply to weaken the United States by promoting divisiveness, said Carolyn Lawrence-Dill, an ISU associate professor and co-author of the paper.

Some American anti-GMO organizations were quick to attack the study, but by impugning the motives of the authors, rather than denying the validity of the study. Indeed, Henry Rowlands of the site Sustainable Pulse, doubled down. He said the Russian news organizations are just fine, and in fact more acceptable than American media on this topic.

“The ISU researchers failed to ask the question as to why the U.S. media does not cover the GMO issue regularly, despite a growing consumer interest in and backlash against the technology. It may seem unusual to some, but on this topic the Russian media has more freedom than the U.S. media,” Rowlands said in this article on the organization’s website.  

Rowlands challenged the fairness of the paper’s authors, on grounds that Iowa State gets money from the grain industry. But that’s a stretch. Iowa state is also a leading research institution on organics.

The disinformation campaign appears to operate out of two Russian news sites, RT News and Sputniknews. Between them they used the term GMO more often than the total of five U.S. news sites across the political spectrum: Huffington Post, Fox News, CNN, Breitbart News and MSNBC.

They were RT News scare stories about GMO mosquitoes: “GMO mosquitoes could be cause of Zika outbreak.”

And this: RT News: GMO corn “contains a startling level of toxic chemicals.”

Paradoxically, RT News also had the headline, “GMO crops not harming human health, but not boosting yields.”

And from Sputnik “GMO only causes problems,” and “Mass cultivation of genetically modified crops may damage biodiversity.”

The paper makes the point that the Russians aren’t alone in opposing biotech: “High profile individuals such as Dr. Oz and organizations like the Center for Food Safety, Right to Know, Greenpeace, and the Organic Consumers Association garner considerable attention as they actively oppose the creation and release of biotech animals and crops for agricultural production, promote product boycott movements, and calls for policymakers to enact both mandatory labeling laws and outright bans.”

The Iowa paper says Russian news sites use anti-GMO “click bait,” to link stories provocatively in ways that puts biotech in a bad light. For example, a story on birth defects in mothers infected with Zika was linked to the piece on GMO mosquitos being implicated in Zika.

“These campaigns are long marches, not short sprints. Intentional misinformation campaigns can provide emotional energy and additional attention to topics deemed important for guiding public opinion well into the future,” the Iowa State paper said.

It is no secret and the Russian news organizations don’t deny that Russia’s goal is to promote its own non-genetically engineered crops. RT News admitted as much when it published this piece: “Russia looks to become leading organic food exporter as Europe sees future in GMO.”  

The Iowa State paper concludes with the assessment that Russia’s effort has multiple purposes, and that another of them to undermine science in the West.

“The threat of Russia’s misinformation campaign is not limited to sowing seeds of division in the US and Europe and bolstering Russian economic power - there is also the potential to erode public trust in science, an institutionalized pillar of western intellectual tradition. Whether their anti-science campaign will gain measurable traction remains to be seen.”

The paper has only been out for a few days, but it has already gained significant attention.

“Russia wants you to hate GMOs,” says MIT Technology Review

“Anti-GMO articles tied to Russian sites,” said the DesMoines Register

“Iowa Researchers Find Negative GMO Reporting in Russian Press,” says

Fake news or disinformation, a translation of the Russian word dezinformatsiya, comes from the KGB’s propaganda playbook. And it is familiar to Americans now, given our increasing knowledge of Russian interference in elections and election campaigns.

The New York Times, in a 2016 article, said “disinformation is regarded as an important aspect of Russian military doctrine, and it is being directed at political debates in target countries with far greater sophistication and volume than in the past.” 

© Jan TenBruggencate 2018