Our Simple Right to Know

SUBHEAD: We deserve well-paying, safe jobs that are good for the health of the environment.

By Andrea Brower on 9 July 2013 for the Garden Island News -  

Image above: Graphic in support of Hooser/Bynam Bill 2491 to regulate pesicides and GMOs on Kauai. From Jonaathan Jay.

In an extremely rare case, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently delayed approval of a variety of corn, soybean and cotton crops genetically-engineered to resist 2,4-D and dicamba, two heavy-duty pesticides.

The agency did so after determining that the crops “may significantly affect the quality of the human environment.” But where were these pesticides and crops tested in the first place? What impacts did they have on that environment and the communities living there?

Given that Kauai is ground zero for the agrichemical-GMO industry to experiment, in the open air, with their new technologies, could it be that they were tested here? We have no way to know, because the law does not protect our right to know.

Kauai County Council Bill 2491 on pesticides and GMOs seeks to correct this obvious oversight. It is applicable only to the five corporations who use tremendous amounts of restricted-use pesticides each year. The bill establishes people’s right to know about the chemicals that are being used, and sets up a buffer zone between where these dangerous pesticides are sprayed and schools, hospitals, residential areas and waterways.

It also requires that the county conduct an EIS so we can better understand the impacts of the agrichemical-GMO operations on our island, and in the meantime puts a moratorium on new operations. And it mandates that experimental pesticides and GMOs be tested in laboratories rather than in the open-air.

The pesticides this bill pertains to are not the kind you buy at Ace Hardware. They are “restricted-use” pesticides because they are recognized as extremely dangerous to human health and the environment. Chemicals such as atrazine, known to cause birth defects and contaminate ground-water, and banned in the European Union. Lorsban by Dow, known to cause impaired brain and nervous system functions in children and fetuses, even in very small amount. Pesticides shown to affect brain cancer, autism and heart and liver problems.

Right now we don’t know when and where these chemical are being used. Are they being used in concentrated amounts, and how are different pesticides interacting? Are they being sprayed near schools? Are the workers who spray them, and then go to homes next to the fields, safe from the cumulative effects? Who is responsible when they show up in our water? Without disclosure, we will never be able to answer these questions in full.

Bill 2491 is a highly reasonable bill that is about the county’s responsibility to protect our environment and people’s health. The bill is not about whether you are for or against the science and technology of GMOs — it is about our right to know how highly-dangerous pesticides are impacting us. This bill is a matter of social justice, a matter of public health and a matter of preserving the aina on which we depend.

While it would be great if we could count on the state and federal governments to protect our environment, public health and safety, the fact is that they haven’t. And this issue cannot wait. People are sick now. We need to know now.

Our state and federal governments have spent the last decades putting the interests of these transnational corporations over the interests of the common good. It is up to us and our friends in local government, who have direct experience of the impacts of these corporations, to take the necessary action. This law has been reviewed by many attorneys locally and at the state and national levels, and we on Kauai have the right to decide on it.

Despite what they would like us to believe, the chemical-GMO corporations did not show up on Kauai just because we have nice weather. They came because they saw us as an exploitable community, left with an economic void when the sugar plantations exited, and challenged to think outside of the box of plantation agriculture after 150 years of it. They saw a community of mostly working-class people, already conditioned to accept an industry that exports all of its profits and leaves behind nothing but pollution, health bills and unsafe, low-paying jobs. They came because, despite our enlightened state motto and constitutional mandate to protect the environment, we allow them to get away with doing things that they wouldn’t be allowed to do in other places.

The people of Kauai deserve so much better than what the chemical-GMO industry is leaving us with. We deserve well-paying, safe jobs that are also good for the long-term health of the environment. As an island dependent on barges coming from at least 2,500 miles away for 85 percent of our food, one obvious place for job generation is in developing our sustainable agriculture industry. There are huge possibilities.

Half of the lands used by the agrichemical-GMO industry on Kauai are state lands, which could be made more easily available to real farmers. Water that is currently being hoarded by the private chemical industry could be returned to streams and agricultural users, in line with state water law. Subsidy support and research could be consistently put towards sustainable and locally-appropriate agriculture.

By privileging the chemical-GMO companies’ use of our resources over local agriculture, we are paying the costs of missed opportunities. Sustainable agriculture to service local needs would generate local revenues and stimulate the economic multiplier effect, plug economic leakages, support a wide variety of other small businesses, employ far more people, insure food security, add to the resilience of our economy, distribute benefits more equitably and be a real draw to tourists. While we do face structural challenges to building our local agricultural industry, some of which are national or global, there are innumerable creative and immediate solutions.

These include a variety of socially responsible enterprises, businesses based on triple bottom line economics that benefit people and the planet, cooperatives, food hubs, land trusts and ag parks, land use policy in favor of local ag, farmer training and research funding for sustainable ag.
The public will to proactively create and support these solutions keeps growing. Young people especially are looking for the opportunities to farm, to be stewards of the aina and feed their communities.

We should be very clear that by regulating the transnational corporations who are here taking advantage of our resources and communities, we are supporting the possibility of local agriculture.

By protecting our fragile, limited and precious resources, we protect the possibility of real agriculture (that actually feeds us) thriving in the long-term. This bill is a support to farmers, agriculture and our future food security. In an era of increasing vulnerability due to climate change, energy insecurity and global economic instability, we need to protect the conditions of possibility for local food economies to grow.

The chemical-GMO companies will do everything they can to fight this bill. They are some of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world. This is not a matter of “bad” people doing bad things. These corporations are legally mandated to make profit at any expense for their shareholders.

They may have a few friendly and concerned managers who live locally, but the economic structure that these corporations operate within does not prioritize environmental and human health. That is why this issue requires a structural response — actual policy that will limit these corporations’ ability to externalize their costs onto communities and the environment.

The industry is using the unfortunate tactic of threatening workers that if this bill passes, their jobs will be lost. While this is very misleading, we need to be sensitive to the position workers are being put in. This is a time for all of us on Kauai to have compassion and understanding for these workers, the people who are most affected by these toxic pesticides.

If in fact the industry does decide to leave simply because we’ve asked them to be transparent and responsible with their chemical use, then we need to generate new agricultural jobs that are higher-paying, less hazardous and long-term. Jobs that express who we are and are integral to our local economy, rather than those dependent on the whims of transnational corporations who can get up and leave at any time.

Kauai can be a leader in the state and nation for environmental justice, for putting people ahead of profit. We take pride here in our values of care and responsibility for one another and the aina. We also take pride in not cowering to the status quo, in asserting our sovereignty and ability to make wise decisions for ourselves about our lives, land and health.

This is an incredibly important moment, a turning point in the island’s history. It will determine whether we let ourselves be bullied or stand up to transnational corporations.

When it comes to the health of our population and environment, we must demand self-determination. The world is watching, and we will send a clear message, one way or the other.

See also:
Ea O Ka Aina: Stop Poisoning Paradise 6/28/13
Ea O Ka Aina: Stop Poisoning Paradise Fundraising 6/28/13
Ea O Ka Aina: Regulation of GMOs & Pesticides 6/27/13
Ea O Ka Aina: Re-election Contingent on GMO Vote 6/24/13
Ea O Ka Aina: My testimony on GMO Bill 2491 6/24/13
Ea O Ka Aina: Pass Pesticide Bill - Testify today! 6/23/13
Ea O Ka Aina: Hooser's GMO Bill 6/22/13.

• Andrea Brower, born and raised on Kauai, is working on a Ph.D. on the politics and economics of food and agriculture. She has a master’s degree in science and international development from the University of Sussex.


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