The US Environmental Protection Agency has awarded a federal grant that supports the anti-GMO movement in Hawaii.
Deldi Reyes, environmental justice program manager for the EPA’s Region 9 Enforcement Area, maintained the grant was “more about pesticides in general” than GMOs. However, the grant project specifically targets the companies that grow GMO and hybrid seeds on the island of Kauai.
And though Reyes claimed “this project focused more on the potential impacts versus taking a pro or anti GMO stand,” it was awarded to anti-GMO/anti-pesticide activist Phoebe Eng.
Eng intends to partner with Po’ai Wai Ola, an organization that recently brought an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging a state land lease to a Kauai seed company and has contested water use by seed companies.
Eng plans to conduct a public outreach campaign to “provide opportunities for west Kauai residents to learn about and protect against impacts to water quality and public health due to toxic pesticide use by large agricultural companies working in the local area,” according to the grant summary.
Reyes downplayed concerns about the potential for bias and conflict of interest in the outreach campaign. But she acknowledged the EPA will not vet any of the materials disseminated through the grant, even though Eng has no formal training in pesticides and has taken strident anti-GMO and anti-pesticide stances.
When asked whether EPA was interested in ensuring the public gets accurate, unbiased materials, Reyes replied, “Yes, it is important to us. We don’t want people out there spreading lies or slandering businesses.”
However, Eng already has engaged in such practices. In addition to describing genetic engineering as an “irresponsible technology,” she wrote a piece where she claimed:
The pesticide and herbicide practices of GMO tenants damage our soil over the long term, reducing it to a lifeless growing medium. Open air GMO chemical spraying is affecting the health of West Side children and families, resulting in increased health care costs that are borne by taxpayers, insurance companies, and private citizens.”
However, not a single study conducted in Hawaii has documented any soil harm or health hazards associated with the cultivation of GMO seed crops or their related pesticide use. Indeed, testing conducted by both state agencies and anti-GMO groups found only trace amounts of pesticides — well below EPA thresholds — in the air and water near GMO fields, indicating that pesticides are not migrating off-site in any significant amounts, and certainly not at levels that could cause harm.
Eng also made numerous false assertions in her grant application, including this spurious claim circulated by an anti-GMO group, the Center for Food Safety:
Because the west Kauai fields are R&D test fields where pesticide tolerances are being studied to create new patented seed and parent seed strains, the level of pesticide application far exceeds that of conventionally grown, commercial genetically engineered crops, for example on the US mainland. Herbicide resistance is a frequently tested trait in GE crop field tests in Hawaii. This means that plants genetically engineered in Hawaii, by and large, are engineered to resist ever greater applications of pesticides.
The residential communities of these towns therefore bear an extremely large toxic load as a consequence of pesticide spraying.
In reality, herbicide and pesticide testing does not occur in Hawaii. Herbicide-resistant crops are grown in the Islands primarily for breeding purposes. In other words, making new combinations of traits and selecting among the progeny. When an herbicide tolerance trait has been developed, it is not necessary to “test” it with repeated high rates of herbicide.
Eng’s application also falsely claimed that west Kauai residents had a higher rate of cancer, though a state study showed that Hawaii residents in general have lower cancer rates than the rest of the US. The only elevated rates on Kauai were found on the north shore, far from the seed fields, where the district’s largely Caucasian population had high incidences of the skin cancer melanoma.
Surely the EPA’s Region 9, which is charged with regulating and enforcing pesticide use in Hawaii, should be aware of these facts. But Eng was given the grant despite these falsehoods and her history as an anti — even though Reyes claimed that “we certainly want them to do it [the project] in an objective and science-based way.”
Furthermore, the grant allows Eng to use federal money to identify others sympathetic to her cause, and proselytize west Kauai residents, including seed company workers, “to consider job choices that more closely align with their values.”
Or in other words, her values, as articulated in materials she’s written about the need to “change the long-term direction of West Side agriculture … so it can be a world-class destination and model for sustainable regional development.” Sure sounds like she’s aiming to get rid of the seed companies.
Perhaps most disturbing, the grant authorizes Eng to draft “a Community Collaboration Action Plan which relies on the continuation of our work together in the years to come.”
In short, the EPA is giving Eng funds to establish herself as the voice and decision-maker of the community — even though she wrote the grant on behalf of a newly formed group with no identified members, and no nonprofit status. What’s more, Eng provided no proof that she had any community partnerships, and she did not disclose or identify any additional sources of funding.
When questioned, Reyes said only that the application process didn’t require her to show any proof of collaboration. Reyes then added, “The people out there [west Kauai] deserve a voice.”
Yes, I replied. They do.
But shouldn’t it be their own voice, I argued, rather than the voice of an activist transplant who makes patronizing references to the “plantation mentality” of west Kauai residents and their inability to comprehend complex issues like pesticide laws?
Eng’s grant application included such dismissive contentions as “Many residents do not read well…are not proficient in English… and lack the ability to communicate their views in ways the policymakers are accustomed to.” However, Eng failed to note that two of the current Kauai County Councilmembers were raised in that very community, and so should have no problem communicating with its inhabitants.
At the end of our conversation, I told Reyes that many in the Hawaii agricultural sector believe that EPA’s Region 9 is in cahoots with anti-GMO/anti-pesticide activists.
“That’s not me, that’s not Region 9,” Reyes replied.
Perhaps not, I said. But when you give out a grant like this, it sure reinforces that perception. And on a small island like Kauai, perception tends to be more important than reality.
Update 12-4-17: An EPA official read my piece, contacted me and offered assurance that the official will personally scrutinize both the materials developed and activities carried out under this grant. “When the EPA gives its stamp of approval [to pesticides] that means a lot and it’s not something to be taken lightly,” the official said. “To have somebody come around the backdoor and say, ‘they’re not safe,’ is not fair to the public or to the companies that use these chemicals. It sends a double message and that’s what we’re trying to avoid.”