Why I’m Going to Hawaii to Defend the Maize Winter Nurseries

Written by Steve Savage

The Hawai’ian Island chain (source: Wikimedia)

Hawaii currently plays an important role in the global food supply – one far more important than that of its historical sugarcane and pineapple industries.  When the economic viability of plantation agriculture declined in the 1990s, a number of international seed companies began to use some of that land as a “winter nursery” site.  The mild climate allows multiple generations/year of crops like corn/maize.  This helps to accelerate the breeding, testing and early seed increase of that critically important feed/food/fuel crop.
Globally over 850 million metric tons of maize is produced each year (2010 data, FAOStats).   Many regions of the world are net importers of maize (82 million metric tons total, Asia 49, Africa 12, Middle East 11, W. Europe 5.9, Caribbean 2.2, Central America 2.1).  This is a crop that matters.
Because the global maize crop has included transgenic hybrids for many years, much of the corn being grown in the nurseries is “GMO.”  Anti-GMO activists on Hawaii with support from elsewhere are trying to restrict or remove these nursery operations.  The County of Kauai is considering a bill (#2491) which, if passed, would make it not only impractical to continue the critical winter nursery work on “the garden isle,” but also virtually any kind of agriculture (including organic).  Karl Haro von Mogel has posted a good critique of the bill on the Biofortified Blog.
A volunteer from Kauai who is helping the local agricultural community organize a defense for the nursery industry and other types of farming contacted me.  She invited several of us who blog and speak about agricultural issues to come to Kauai.  I was asked if I could come and help diffuse some of the fear that has been generated by a distorted view of pesticide use in Kauai agriculture presented by the authors and supporters of bill #2491.  The Hawaii Department of Agriculture keeps records of all the sales of “Restricted-Use Pesticides” and those are available on request. “Restricted-Use Pesticide” is a term that can easily be made to sound scary – particularly if those talking about it never bother to look into what specific chemicals are involved and what “restricted-use” means for each of them.  I asked for the same data set.
I’ve taken several days of time to gather information and statistics from a variety of completely public sources that can put this particular pattern of pesticide use into perspective.  I’ll put up a detailed analysis later, but here are the hard data-based messages I hope to communicate in various forums in Hawaii next week:

  • The pesticides in question here are not the sort of toxic chemicals most people imagine.  98% of what is applied is less toxic gram-for-gram than the caffeine in your morning cup of coffee
  • These pesticides are not unusual – they are the same ones commonly used on millions of acres of corn in the US Midwest and the rates applied on Kauai are in the moderate to low range for corn
  • Quantities expressed in tons sound alarmingly large, but when one factors in the total area involved we are talking about 0.000043 pounds/square foot per year
  • As more evidence that these are not unusual chemicals, in 2011, 2.8 million pounds of these same pesticides were used on 164 different crops/settings in California in 51 counties
  • The main reason that these products are on the “Restricted-use” list is to insure that the users have the training necessary to take the necessary precautions so that they don’t move into bodies of water where they could be toxic to fish or other things.  With such care in application, there should be no environmental issues with the use

It has been 51 years since the publication of “Silent Spring.” The Environmental Movement that book helped to launch has achieved tremendous gains.  It has been 44 years since the EPA was established and it has become more and more sophisticated in its regulatory oversight designed to make pesticide use a low risk activity.  Billions of dollars have been spent in the discovery, testing and commercialization of newer, better pesticide options.  When it comes to crop biotechnology, this is the first form of crop improvement ever to be regulated at all and by no less than three federal agencies (USDA, EPA, FDA).  Our health and the environment are already being well protected through national and state regulation.  There is no justification for an entirely new, county-level regulatory process.
Because I will be defending the use of pesticides and biotechnology, I fully anticipate being accused of being a “shill.”  I’m rather used to that label after several years of blogging about such topics.  Yes, I am someone who gets paid to consult for ag technology companies, but the time I spend writing in defense of agriculture is actually counter-productive for my income.  I guess I must be a pro-bono shill.  This next week, and preparation for it, will cost me consulting income.  I’m going to miss a week out of the special month of my grand daughter’s summer visit.  I’m also under no delusion that I can convince many of those who will see me as part of some grand conspiracy.  My hope is to present some solid, data-based perspective for people whose minds are still open.
I’m going to Hawaii because I’m sympathetic to the people who work in agriculture there, and I don’t want to see those good jobs lost to the Kauai economy. But the main reason I’m willing to go is that I think the winter nursery activity in Hawaii matters for the future of the global food supply.  Technology as such, including biotechnology, is not what will feed the world.  Only farmers can do that.  But to do that, farmers need to integrate a full “toolbox” of wise agronomic practices, elite genetics, useful traits, crop protection chemicals, sophisticated equipment, and good information in order to do their crucial job.  Through the agency of such farmers, something like the 12,000 maize winter nursery acres on Kauai can enhance production efficiency and/or reduce risk on hundreds of millions of acres of that crop around the world.  It would be a tragedy to let unfounded and unevaluated fears compromise that contribution.
You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com.  If anyone wants help finding the public data sources about pesticides our their use I’m happy to tell you how to get the data.

Written by Guest Expert

Steve Savage has worked with various aspects of agricultural technology for more than 35 years. He has a PhD in plant pathology and his varied career included Colorado State University, DuPont, and the bio-control start-up, Mycogen. He is an independent consultant working with a wide variety of clients on topics including biological control, biotechnology, crop protection chemicals, and more. Steve writes and speaks on food and agriculture topics (Applied Mythology blog) and does a bi-weekly podcast called POPAgriculture for the CropLife Foundation.


  1. I wish you well and success, Steve. I wondered about that 2.8 ton figure as the anti-gmo sites kept leaving out the land area that it was applied too. Thanks for figuring it out.

  2. With so many countries banning GMO products and studies are coming out showing how biotechnology may not be in our best interests-why, then don’t we switch focus on growing pure non gmo crops here in Hawaii? All those countries are going to want organic seed corn-and everything else(soy,ect..) We need to return to the grass roots farming techniques-cover crops, tilling,ect and get far away from drenching the food destined for our tables with pesticides. What happened to old fashioned hybridizing -breed the best and forget the rest? Please watch Genetic Roulette……….

  3. “The main reason that these products are on the “Restricted-use” list is to insure that the users have the training necessary to take the necessary precautions so that they don’t move into bodies of water where they could be toxic to fish or other things. With such care in application, there should be no environmental issues with the use”
    So when the pesticides show up in places that they don’t belong, like a middle school drinking water sample and air samples, that would mean that whomever is using the chemical is not taking proper care, correct?

  4. Steve, wow, now come on. That’s quite a claim you made about the toxicity of glysophate in round up. Just for the record, Round Up is a patented Biocide.It’s made to kill life. It is touted by biotech as safe. Better than sliced bread or just like the caffeine in your coffee? Gezz, no wonder you say you have been touted as a paid shill. Oh, excuse me a underpaid shill. Try telling that story to the Indian farmers have been using it to commit suicide by drinking it. Here is a link on why http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-seeds-of-suicide-how-monsanto-destroys-farming/5329947

  5. I toured the Monsanto plant breeding site on Maui and saw their full operation… the fields, the seed room, the machines that make it possible to test and retest corn DNA and to identify desired traits throughout a plant’s lifespan. I even blogged about it. I was invited to Kauai to do the same but could not make it to that island. I applaud you for taking this on and I’m confident that good will come of it. Renee is great and I only wish I could have gone to Kauai!

  6. By day manager of the largest exporter of GMO papaya to the US mainland, weekends a natural farmer trying to grow our own food. Been working with many long time ranchers, farmers and nursery people to defeat Bill 79. It is bad legislation and divides our community, distracting us from the real challenge of farmers working together for food self reliance for our island. Contact me upon your visit and I will introduce you to many long time Hawaiian farmers.

  7. First Officer,
    The use on Kauai in terms of actual active ingredients is around 11 tons or 22,000 lbs on 12,000 acres. The use of the same chemicals in California was 2.8 million pounds, but obviously on a much larger area.

  8. Edie,
    I’ve seen Genetic Roulette and it is just a bunch of distortions and outright lies. Hawaii really only grows one commercial GMO crop, Papaya, and without that virus resistance the crop would not be able to continue. Cover crops are great. Tillage is not. No crops are “drenched” with pesticides. The use rates are extremely small. Traditional breeding is continuing full steam even for crops that also use biotech. In fact it is going even faster because of the ability to use genetic markers to make that process far more sophisticated (and yet still conventional breeding).

  9. AJ,
    If they showed up there it would mean that someone wasn’t doing things by the regulations. I don’t know if you are talking about a real incident, but if that happened, ag use is not probably the prime suspect.

  10. John,
    You are mixing up your internet myths. Glyphosate is not a “biocide.” It is only toxic to plants. Caffeine is actually a relatively toxic chemical. Plants make it to try to ward off pests. It is safe enough for us because we don’t consume enough to kill us and our bodies clear it fairly quickly. I don’t think I said anything about sliced bread. As for the Indian Farmers myth, that has been completely debunked anyway and it never had anything to do with glyphosate in the first place.

  11. Kauai is .3% the size of california…we are only 550 sq miles and 70% of our land is undeveloped…its a much more concentrated area we are talking about.

  12. I have another question. What is the purpose of a masking agent used with pesticides? And more importantly, why would a agriculture company need to use that sort of thing, if they insist that there is no pesticide drift (in relation to this bill, no need for a buffer zone.)

  13. Susan,
    I’ve scanned your article and you may be right that the large role of maize in international trade does lead to disruption exposure. However, looking to other cereal grains is not an easy solution to climate change issues. Most of those crops have gotten far less private investment for a very long time because they are not either hybrid or biotech (e.g. wheat, barley, most rice, most legumes except soy…). If anything those crops are less prepared for this difficult future. Sorghum might be an option for some uses, but certainly not all. I’m in favor of greater crop diversification, but real world economics are a big factor here.

  14. My understanding is that masking agents are used to minimize unpleasant odors after spraying. If that makes the pesticide a more attractive product to the farmer who sprays it, then it would make sense for an ag company to include it in the formulation. (“RoundUp Fresh – now with lavender!™”)

  15. AJ and Tom,
    There are not masking agents used for glyphosate or almost any pesticide. Whether there is drift has to do with droplet size, windspeed, the nature of the sprayer (hight, pressure…..). You should also know that glyphosate is an off-patent, largely generic product at this point. You should also know that farmers are not people you could market to with gimmicks.

  16. But masking agents might be used when spraying near residential areas for non-ag purposes, right? (Note – I’m not against pesticides per se. Should be clear from my posting history at BioFortified.)

  17. Steve Savage calulations are still correct. 11 tons over 12000 acres, the actual land the pesticides were sprayed upon. 0.673 milli-ounces per square foot. 12000 acres is only 18.75 square miles. There are 640 acres to the square mile and 43560 square feet to the acre. The concentration of any and all drift to adjacent parcels would be the same as in California, et al. Regardless of their respective sizes to Kauai. After all, any and all drift would not magically stop at the shorelines.

  18. Even cover crops is not so great. Eschewing synthetic fertilizers will require us to press more land into farming since when cover crops are growing, our crops are not.

  19. Even the article says the sampling was over several months and the levels detected are below standards, even accumulated over those months. Kyles statement, “at any level”, is mathematically an impossible one. Even metals and rocks will shed a few atoms and molecules into the atmosphere. Sounds like Kyle maybe after a quick lawsuit buck.

  20. No, I definitely agree that the math is right. I just think that it is more complicated then just comparing us to california. Have you ever see a map of Kauai? Lookng at the land parcels in use (12,000 acres is only the land used in west kauai, not taking into consideration the new plots in koloa, kipu, puhi, lihue, kalepa area) they are interwoven into communities, many schools share boarders with the fields or are less then 200 ft away. But maybe its good to compare us to CA since they have .25 mile buffer zones that we want!

  21. I’m sorry I cannot be more detailed with my question, but right now, when a seed company sprays RUP (or doing whatever they are doing) and masks it with a bubble gum scent, our community does not have the right know what they were spraying. Which pesticide would someone use a masking agent for? Or what other purpose besides a pesticide/herbicide would ? Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, I do appreciate it.

  22. Please watch this presentation on the pesticide use in Waimea, it clarifies why even a trace amount of Atrazine found around children is extremely harmful.
    Full Presentation:

    Shorten version:

  23. And, yet, none was found at the school:
    Not to mention all those farmers’ families and their children have some exposure to Altrazine but no reports of farmers’ children mutating in the night. There are studies showing increased exposure compared to non-farm children but actual increases in diseases and conditions due to Atrazine? They seem to be lacking.

  24. Thanks Tom for the link on suicides in India. I had been looking for that myself.myself, But got distracted lastnight — you beat me to it. The farmer suicide myth ranks right up there with9/11 controlled demolition nonsense.

  25. Thanks for posting these links and videos Tom. Very educational. I never thought I would be reading that in-depth into the suicide rates (and correlative causes) of Indian farmers but I feel the IFPRI link conveys a large amount of info.

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