Friday, May 15, 2015

Center for Food Safety pesticide report disappoints

When we make public policy, we depend on accuracy of information. 

Which raises the issue of repeated error in the Center for Food Safety’s new “Pesticides in Paradise’ paper

The mistakes in the report begin in the first paragraph, and just keep rolling along.

It’s been a few days since the report’s May 6, 2015 release, and it has not generated much discussion. 

That may be appropriate.

It would be perfectly possible to write a serious public policy document critical of genetic engineering in Hawai`i agriculture without misstatements and misdirection, but this CFS report doesn’t go there. Instead, the study makes one questionable, out-of-context or misleading statement after another. 

It begs the question, what were they thinking with a document so readily debunkable?

Throughout, the report connects genetic engineering with pesticide use, which can be related but are not the same thing. There are genetically engineered traits that have nothing to do with pesticide resistance (think Rainbow papaya, resistant to the papaya ringspot virus), and some genetic traits are actually designed to make pesticide use unnecessary (think Bt corn, which kills the larvae of the European corn borer so farmers don’t have to spray pesticides to kill it.) 

You wouldn’t know that stuff from most of the Center for Food Safety report. You have to read carefully to find the concession that “Virtually all GE crops grown commercially today have only one or both of two traits: herbicide-resistance and/or insect resistance.” 

And even that is transparently wrong. Modern plant varieties have lots of traits, some introduced through natural selection, some through conventional breeding, and occasionally some through genetic engineering. The insect resistance feature, which actually reduces pesticide use, is severely downplayed. 

“Pesticides in Paradise” opens with the statement that five companies have purchased ag land on four islands: “On O‘ahu, Kaua`i, Maui, and Moloka`i, chemical and biotechnology companies Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont-Pioneer, Dow Chemical, and BASF have purchased prime agricultural land.”

There’s a germ of truth there. Some of the companies own some land, but they lease most of their land. None of them owns land on all four islands. None owns any ag land on Kaua`i. (We called all four of them to ask, since it seemed unlikely a national organization like CFS would make that big an error in their very first sentence.)

Later in the paper, CFS concedes “About 85% of the land occupied by the Big Five pesticide-seed firms is leased.” 

This is not a significant error—more a case of intellectual sloppiness—but it serves as a sample of the fare to follow.

The study leaves readers with the perception that all seed company activity in the Islands involves genetic material testing and pesticide testing, which of course is also far from the truth.

Again in the very first paragraph, the paper suggests the companies are in the Islands “in order to field test crops that have been genetically engineered (GE) to withstand ever greater applications of pesticides.”

That’s certainly some of what they do.

But it’s not what they came to the Islands for initially. 

It’s not all of what they do and not even most of what they do. 

Most acreage farmed by the big companies is used in parent seed production—growing crops that will help produce hybrid seed for farmers. And that use is pure farming, not testing.

“These farms use both conventional as well as biotech plant breeding methods to grow seed crops,” says one of the serious scientific reports on the industry, Loudat and Kasturi’s 2013 “Hawaii’s Seed Crop Industry.” 

The companies were in the islands growing seed crops long before genetic engineering had a significant role in the industry. And a lot of what they were doing back  before genetic engineering, they’re still doing. 

CFS says, “plants genetically engineered in Hawai‘i, by and large, are engineered to resist ever greater application of herbicides.” Really? Once a crop is resistant to a particular herbicide, what would be the purpose of “ever greater application” of that herbicide?

The CFS study suggests the seed industry’s employment is minimal: “Despite claims that the seed industry is a pillar of Hawai‘i’s economy, it only employed 1,397 workers in 2012, representing just 0.23% of total Hawai‘i jobs.”

It is also fair to say that agriculture employment of all kinds is today a much smaller part of the state’s economy than it once was.

Let’s look at that the employment numbers another way. How does the seed industry compare within Hawaiian agricultural employment? 

Loudat and Kasturi say, “At current employment levels, the seed crop industry percentage of all agricultural jobs equals: 20.2% of statewide agriculture jobs; 27.8% of Oahu agricultural jobs; 12.4% of Neighbor island agricultural jobs.”

And, of course, there’s a lot of associated employment by companies that provide goods and services to the seed companies, and that benefit in other ways from the presence of a large agricultural sector. 

Loudat and Kasturi go on to say: “Seed crop industry direct annual contributions to the Hawaii economy from annual expenses equals $239.4 million. This is 33.3% of total direct annual contributions to Hawaii’s economy from all Hawaii agriculture. Seed crop industry labor income equals to $69.2 million.  This is 28.1% of the total labor income of Hawaii’s agricultural sector.”

And why is the seed industry’s contribution to labor income higher than its contribution to statewide ag jobs? Because they pay better than most industries, Loudat and Katsuri say: “Overall average earnings for the seed crop industry are 11.1% greater than the statewide average.”

The Center for Food Safety is fully capable of putting out, and does put out credible data. We cited one of their reports in our previous blog post. But this one is different.

It all raises the questions, what was this document intended to accomplish, and in a year when farming issues are highly political, why did it show up only after the Hawai`i Legislature’s 2015 session? 

When the Center for Food Safety announced the opening of their Honolulu office last year, they promised more.

“Hawaii Center for Food Safety is ready and equipped to add the legal, scientific, and organizational capacity that community groups need to push their efforts forward,” local program director Ashley Lukens was quoted as saying in Pacific Business News.

On its website, CFS offers to make presentations about the report to community groups. It is to be hoped that they make a whole lot of corrections before they do.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2015

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