The western most state of Hawaii has more than its fair share of disgruntled activists who adamantly oppose and protest the use of genetic engineering (GMOs) in agriculture, pesticide use in farm fields, and in other businesses.
Gaining a better understanding of anti-agriculture activists and how to positively respond to their shenanigans was the theme of discussion during the 2015 Western Plant Health Association (WPHA) annual meeting held on the island of Maui, Hawaii in October.
Covering this issue in depth was Jan TenBruggencate, an award-winning journalist and author, who has extensively covered anti GMO and pesticide activism antics on the islands (Hawaiian counties) of Kauai and Maui.
TenBruggencate was raised on a pineapple plantation on the island of Molokai where his father was a pineapple researcher. The junior TenBruggencate has lived on Kauai for several decades.
For years, TenBruggencate served as a bureau chief and science writer with The Honolulu Advertiser, then Hawaii’s dominant daily newspaper. Once he retired, TenBruggencate launched his Island Strategy communications company in 2007.
Today, TenBruggencate, in addition to his other activities, maintains an interest in community activism on island issues, including GMOs and pesticides.
Sick students, teachers
TenBruggencate retired from the newspaper about the same time when a group of students and teachers at a small school on Kauai reported feeling ill and sought medical treatment at a hospital. Activists blamed the illnesses on pesticide sprays in a seed field adjacent to the school.
The State of Hawaii contracted with University of Hawaii researchers to study the issue. They found that the real illness culprit was stinkweed plants, Cleome gynandra, and that it was not farm chemical related. The study found that stinkweek exudes 29 detectable chemicals, several of which have pesticidal qualities.
“This event started the entire anti GMO-pesticide movement on Kauai,” TenBruggencate told the WPHA farm chemical crowd. “Since then, Hawaii has been ‘ground zero’ for pesticide use globally.”
He says the anti GMO-pesticide crowd asserts that Kauai is “drenched in pesticides” and that farm chemicals have led to spikes in birth defects, cancers, and other medical ailments, although evidence for that is lacking.
Activists practice 'inductive reasoning'
“Many of the folks who oppose the agricultural industry use the process of inductive reasoning, versus deductive reasoning,” said TenBruggencate.
Inductive logic is based on a ‘bottom-up’ reasoning approach where a person looks at a few facts and reaches general conclusions or theories.
Deductive reasoning is just the opposite, using ‘top-down’ logic reasoning which is more detailed. This reasoning process tests a theory to reach a confirmation.
TenBruggencate says science includes both logical techniques. A person might use inductive reasoning to come up with a theory and deductive reasoning to challenge the theory.
The famous example of inductive reasoning is the school mentioned earlier where school children and teachers became ill.
“The inductive reasoning conclusion was the kids got sick, fields were sprayed next door about the same time, so they much have gotten sick due to pesticides,” said TenBruggencate.
Yet thanks to the University of Hawaii study, TenBruggencate said, “The alleged pesticide link to the illnesses was debunked. Yet repeatedly for the last eight years, opponents of the seed industry have insisted the pesticide sprays made people sick.”
Ignoring the facts
TenBruggencate said, “With inductive reasoning you can ignore a thousand facts that don’t support your facts and focus on the four that do.”
A major issue for activists on the islands which TenBruggencate covered as a journalist was a fast, inter-island with proposed service between some islands. After activists became involved, the super ferry service was scrapped.
“Activists dove into the ocean and swam in front of the ferry to stop it,” he explained.
Many of those same people are now part of the anti-GMO movement, he says. And some, although certainly not all, are true believers, for whom no amount of factual evidence will change their minds.
TenBruggencate says that agriculture can lose the battle by spending all of its time and money focusing on converting the true believers at the fringe. Many of these people cannot be swayed to agriculture’s position.
“Based on my experience, agriculture should focus its attention on the majority – the people at the center who rather have not taken sides, or who can be convinced by being exposed to the facts.”
TenBruggencate added, “There will always be a noisy and sometimes abusive, worrisome fringe majority, but they should not take up too much of your time.”
Government in your bedroom?
TenBruggencate currently serves as the chair of the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative and has dealt with activists during his years on the electric co-op board. He shared that when the co-op was shifting to smart meters, some activists (co-op members) led a loud and angry protest, claiming the new meters would emit harmful radiation.
“Others believed the meters would let the federal government know what was going on in their bedrooms,” TenBruggencate said. “Some claimed the meters would burn their houses down.”
The activists started a petition which led to a vote for all electric cooperative members on smart meter fees.
“We focused our outreach on the rational center, rather than on the fringe. We won the election with a 74 percent yes vote.”
Surprisingly, in the Hawaiian Islands, activists are quite often successful, he says.
“They have won most of their battles,” said TenBruggencate.
People - 7 percent oppose GMOs
Another speaker at the WPHA meeting suggested that 7 percent of people oppose GMOs.
TenBruggencate closed his presentation with suggestions to help agriculture counter these activist strategies.
Start your outreach early, before a protest issue arises. If the anti-GMO movement feeds on fear in the hearts and minds of the majority, the appropriate response is to work to remove the fear and convince the majority of people.
TenBruggencate encourages agriculture to form alliances to fight activist causes. He says sometimes seems a bit scary for those in agriculture to get involved in anti-agriculture movements.
Yet he noted, “If agriculture can get groups to stand up together, then they have an army. The army is out already out there. It needs to be galvanized and put into action.”
TenBruggencate urges farm groups to reach out to local community groups to explain agriculture issues, including the local Rotary Club, Lions Club, community associations, and school groups.
“If these conversations are not underway, you need to have these conversations now,” he said.
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