Panel Speaks Against Pesticides
Agriculture in the United States uses millions of pounds of pesticides and herbicides per year. About 80,000,000 pounds of atrazine, a widely used herbicide found in many U.S. water sources, is sprayed on crops annually. At the same time, some male frogs are “feminizing” –producing eggs instead of sperm, and agricultural chemicals are the blame, according to Dr. Tyrone Hayes.
Hayes, University of California Berkeley Professor of Integrative Biology, presented a lecture to address the effects of agricultural chemicals on hormones as part of a five-island speaking tour on Molokai, May 16. Hayes was joined by food advocates Maui District Health Officer Dr. Lorrin Pang and Paul Towers, Organizing and Media Director at Pesticide Action Network office in California.
Hawaii is ground zero for experimental herbicide-tolerant crops and houses some of the world’s biggest chemical corporations, said Hawaii SEED President Jeri Di Pietro.
“We have the support from the smartest minds from around the world willing to help us here in Hawaii,” Di Pietro said. “They recognize what’s going on and we’re going to make changes, we’re going to raise awareness, we’re going to inspire change and we’re going to make a cleaner environment for our future.”
The statewide “Raise Awareness, Inspire Changes” lecture was sponsored by Hawaii SEED and The MOM Hui, founded on Molokai in 2013 by Mercy Ritte. Each nonprofit works to educate the public on risks posed by genetically engineered organisms (GMOs) and promote local food and farming. Inside the Molokai Community Health Center, about 40 community members gathered to hear experts talk about GMO concerns and the need to grow local food without the use of restricted-use pesticides.
“Hawaii is at the epicenter,” Towers said. “Ultimately, we know a better system exists. I’ve toured fishponds and saw exactly what a local food system looks like and what it can do to sustain a community like here on Molokai. We need information on what’s being used near your communities and how it can affect us.”
The largest employer on Molokai is biotech seed company Monsanto. Many Molokai residents are concerned about the effects Monsanto pesticides may have on residents, keiki and future generations, said Molokai activist Walter Ritte.
“We have no idea what kinds of chemicals [Monsanto is] using and what’s the impact on our ocean, our land and our drinking water,” Ritte said. “This should stir us to protect the island of Molokai that you live on.”
Ritte said the public has a kuleana to educate others and demand that the government regulate pesticide usage and protect citizens.
“We need to speak our truth to the powers that be. We need to register to vote. We need to create a better tomorrow,” Di Pietro said. “What’s going to feed the world in our growing population is sustainable farming, not chemical farming, on a small level where it doesn’t have to be shipped for miles and miles.”
Hayes’ work has gained international recognition for demonstrating how atrazine in extremely low levels has altered reproductive development in frogs.
In 1997, Hayes said he was approached by Syngenta, a global Swiss agribusiness that markets seeds, chemicals and manufactures atrazine, to study the agrochemical. At the time, atrazine was going through a product re-approval process mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
While working for Syngenta, Hayes began research on Xenopus, known collectively as the African Clawed Frog, because the frog has similar genetic makeup to humans. His data inferred that frogs exposed to atrazine had low testosterone levels, some lower than females.
When Hayes examined the frogs’ gonads, he said he discovered something more disturbing: A third of the exposed males had abnormal reproductive organs. About 10 percent of all exposed males turned into females, even though they are genetically male, according to Hayes. Several were hermaphrodites, with both ovaries and testes. Many had more than two of each organ—and some of the testes produced eggs instead of sperm, Hayes said.
The frogs with gender deformities were exposed to as little as 0.1 parts per billion of atrazine.
“That’s one one-thousandth of a grain of salt in two liters of water,” Hayes said. “That’s 30 times less than the three parts per billion [of atrazine] the EPA allows in drinking water.”
In 2000, Hayes said he resigned from the panel of scientists at Syngenta after his discoveries were disregarded.
Atrazine exposure in humans is primarily through drinking water, Hayes said. According to Pang, The Department of Health tested for atrazine in Hawaii’s water supply three months ago and found atrazine in 30 percent of drinking water.
“Now, we don’t know Molokai specifically. It was in 30 percent of the water statewide,” Pang said. “…We have many politicians who say, ‘I’m not doing a… thing about it until harm is shown. By the time you show harm it’s too late.”
Currently, it is unknown what pesticides and pesticide mixtures are being used on Molokai to date because the Department of Agriculture has been unwilling to share that information, Towers said. Monsanto does not use atrazine, but uses glyphosate, according to Hayes. Despite a lack of knowledge, the panelists offered solutions to Molokai residences on how to move forward.
Eating pesticide-free foods and filtering your drinking water is a start, but reducing the use of pesticides is the best solution, Towers said.
In response to Hayes’ findings, the EPA wrote in 2006 that “the ultimate decision is much bigger than science. It weighs in public opinion.” Hayes said “we got to count on you, the public” to make a change.
Panelists said for more information, visit pesticideinfo.org to read about toxicity and regulatory information on pesticides, or check out whatsonmyfood.org for a list of all the sampling the U.S. Department of Agriculture does on produce and the amounts and types of pesticides that are found in conventional and organic foods.