Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Not Happy with Kauai GMO Ordinance Decision

I was at the Lihue Farmers' Market on a beautifully warm morning in July.  The sun was bright and chickens meandered among shoppers' feet, all with the lush green backdrop of lovely Kauai.  I was visiting on the request of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, there to help answer public concerns about transgenic (GMO) technology. I was there with Dr. Steve Savage, along with Renee and Kirby Kester (from HCIA) and a local television guy. It was the first day with new people that would become life-long friends (not so much the camera guy).

I had wonderful interactions with farmers as well as those opposed to GM technology.  Those unhappy with biotech on the island were clearly identified by their red shirts that urged support for County Ordinance 2491, a local initiative that would impose tough (almost impossible) restrictions on the seed companies that shared the island.  Kauai is an off-season nursery for mainland seed production.

After sampling the sweetest pineapple I ever ate, I was introduced to Joanne Yukimura, a woman serving on the Kauai County Council, and one of the seven people that would be voting on the ordinance. She was tiny in stature with a great smile and sharp gray hair that went down just below her ears-- and it took only seconds to see that she was kind, bright and articulate.   I was glad to meet her and schedule a lunch meeting to discuss the science.

She attended a public forum where Steve, Kriby and I spoke on transgenic crops. We had lunch the next day we all had lunch together.  She asked great questions and seemed pleased with our answers. We shared email back and forth a few times.  She seemed to hold an intense desire to understand the science and I was confident that she'd base her decisions and cast her vote in a manner consistent with evidence and reason.

At the public hearings she was tuned in intently to every single story, every comment, and stayed focused through that 14 hour run of three minute testimonials better than the rest.  She asked questions, listened and responded.

It's 1:45 in the morning.  The crowds are gone and a few hold outs hear the last shreds of public testimony. Councilwoman Yukimura is the seated all the way to the right. 

When I completed my science-based testimony she asked me, "One word answer-- Did the Seralini control rats also get tumors?"

"Yes", I said.


When it came time to vote for Ordinance 2491 she voted in favor of it.  She voted for more restrictions against the island's biotech corporations.


Disappointed.  Here was someone that clearly took the time to understand the science, but let politics, emotion, and bad science (more on this later) sway her decision.  The vote passed with her assistance.

Dr. Savage and I share a mystery beverage late in the night, after about 13 hours of continuous public testimony. They had a loudspeaker outside, so we could hear everything from a nearby area. 

Now that day is more than one year in our rear-view mirror, and we sit more than a week after the ordinance was supposed to start. Yesterday a federal circuit court ruled the ordinance unconstitutional.

I hate that decision too.

The ruling was that the ordinance unfairly singled out a specific industry, and that state laws were already in place that had more power and application than the new county ordinance, superseding the need for new laws at a county level.

Why this bothers me.  This is not a scientific victory.  It is not cool heads discussing and debating the data and evidence.  It is not about ensuring public safety, educating the public, and building trust.

When I was over there I enjoyed conversations with workers that had great jobs in the companies.  I also spoke to people everywhere that opposed the companies and wanted them off the islands.  They all shared the common thread of concern for the environment, concern for their families, and an interest in sustainable farming.

They were separated by a dearth of information and shirt color. This morning, the sun will rise on an island  divided even more than ever before.

Councilwoman Yukimura's decision to vote against science and reason, and the Council's massive expenditures to pass and defend this flawed governance are unconscionable.  The fact that a circuit court had to spend a year overturning it is a disgusting waste of time, money and resources.

What is the solution?

If we could just get together and talk, let science guide decisions, and build trust--  that's the way to develop sound guidance that will serve the citizens and environment of Kauai, and promote coexistence with the biotech companies that employ 10% of the island's population.

This court decision will just build new heights of suspicion and allegations of the companies' deep tentacles into judiciary influence. It will breed more anger and turmoil, more raised fists and division.

It breaks my heart because I met warm and concerned people wearing the red shirts in favor of the law, and blue shirts opposing the law. I understood all of them, and all of their concerns.  This is a place for reasoned education and outreach, not a time for bigger divisions and court orders.

As I stated in that testimony, science is not a democracy. Trust is not built on legal wrangling, fear-based lawsuits and corporate restrictions. It comes from education and information.

Yesterday's ruling was an unfortunate necessity, a legal decision that reversed a bad social decision. It was not a victory for science and reason.  It was not a trust building moment.  It leaves a wonderful place with kind people more divided than ever, and the calming sobriety of science even further out of reach, and nobody seems to be reaching for it.

Glyphosate and School Lunches