Mahi Pono, Maui’s largest landowner and agricultural entity, was allegedly cautioned by an agricultural extension agent earlier this month for failing to follow proper procedures when applying Gramoxone, an herbicide product that contains paraquat – one of the most toxic chemicals in use today and one that’s been banned internationally.

That’s the story that’s been racing through Maui farming circles faster than any island brushfire. The incident was originally recounted in casual conversation by a University of Hawai‘i agricultural extension agent to a Maui farmer (and later repeated to me by more than a half-dozen individuals). The farmer said the agent told him that he smelled the unmistakable odor of Gramoxone during an unrelated visit to one of Mahi Pono’s potato fields in early January. 

Gramoxone is the brand name for a herbicide containing paraquat, one of the most toxic chemicals in existence. A teaspoon of the stuff will kill you. It has been banned or phased out in China, Brazil, and all countries in the European Union, but still embraced in the United States. Its usage in the US has increased 200 percent in the past decade and has been linked to diseases such as Parkinson’s, according to a recent report from the Center for Biological Diversity. As a Restricted Use Pesticide (RUP), Gramoxone comes with a “label,” which is not just the sticker on the front of the product, but a 50-plus page document that specifically outlines how, where, and when the herbicide should be used. Here’s just a brief sample from Syngenta’s Gramoxone 3LB. 

“Gramoxone 3LB is a contact herbicide that desiccates all green plant tissue. Paraquat dichloride is a nonselective herbicide and will cause damage to non-target crops and plants if off-target movement occurs. Extreme care must be taken that off-target drift is minimized to the greatest extent possible. This product is toxic to wildlife. Do not apply directly to water or to areas where surface water is present.”

Tell-Tale Smell

Gramoxone has a distinctive scent inserted into the compound, an olfactory warning system that can be detected only when the herbicide is active. The warning smell means that no humans should be in the area, yet in the alleged January incident, the extension agent said he smelled it while he and others were walking around the potato field. When the agent confronted the Mahi Pono employee in charge, he allegedly was told that the Gramoxone use conformed to the instructions on the label. The agent allegedly said that he repeated his concerns, along with the fact that there was no signage posted warning of its use. Later, the agent said, a hand-made sign was put up.

There was no official citation made, as this was a university extension agent without regulatory clout. Whether or not he reported the alleged incident to Department of Agriculture officials who do have citation-issuing authority is unknown. The agent did not return phone calls or emails from me or others familiar with the incident. The farmer who directly heard the story confirmed the agent’s account but did not want his name used as he said he hopes to work with Mahi Pono to improve its agricultural methods.

Mahi Pono officials did not respond when specifically asked last week about the company’s use of Gramoxone or this alleged incident. However, in the wake of this story’s online publication Saturday, Mahi Pono executive Shan Tsutsui issued a textbook non-denial denial on Tuesday that sidestepped any mention of the word “Gramoxone.”

“Many of our current, as well as future crops, are being grown conventionally,” Tsutsui’s statement said. For the uninitiated, the term “conventional” is ag-speak for non-organic chemical use. “As responsible farmers, we fully comply with all label standards and laws.”

Without directly acknowledging the alleged potato field incident, Tsutsui said only that Mahi Pono “has not been issued any warnings or citations related to the improper use of restricted use chemicals by the Hawaii Department of Agriculture or any other Federal, State, or County regulatory agency.”

When asked about Mahi Pono and possible Gramoxone misuse, a spokeswoman for the Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture told MauiTime that the Pesticides Branch on Maui is investigating a “pesticide-related complaint.” The spokeswoman said no further information would be released until the investigation is complete. 

At least we’re not using Roundup…

While the Gramoxone story gained momentum last week (I mean, come on, it was mentioned in a widely read Facebook page) Mahi Pono got busy highlighting another chemical. The company (whose name means “to cultivate morally or properly”) released a so-called “opinion piece” to commemorate its one-year anniversary, entitled “Mahi Pono Bringing Sustainable Ag to Maui.” In it, Tsutsui proclaimed his company’s environmental dedication and announced its decision not to use glyphosate chemical concoctions such as Roundup on its crops.

“We have moved completely away from using glyphosate otherwise known as roundup [sic], which we know is important to our community and our environment,” the piece quoted him saying (I have no doubt that Tsutsui had nothing to do with the article’s creation; this reads like a mashup of lawyering and public relations). He added that the company’s goal is to produce “high yield” food crops “while fully complying with label standards and local laws regarding chemical use…”

Who mentions “label standards” and “chemical use” in such a puffy self-congratulatory piece? Rather than confronting the Gramoxone elephant in the room, Mahi Pono merely sealed off the room with a sign, “No elephant in here” and expected Maui residents to take its word for it.

Sustainable Agriculture?

“Our long-term goal is to bring sustainable agriculture to Maui,” Tsutsui promised. 

According to the National Sustainable Agricultural Coalition, “Sustainable agriculture” as legally defined by U.S. Code Title 7, Section 3103, means an “integrated system of plant and animal production practices.” Those practices include enhancing “environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends.”

Call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure that agricultural sustainability does not include the application of paraquat, the most lethal pesticide in use today. It’s nice that Mahi Pono won’t use Roundup, but is that really such a noble sacrifice? As Dr. Nathan Donley of the Center for Biological Diversity told me recently in an interview, “Roundup isn’t being used much anymore because weeds have developed resistance to it.”

And compared to paraquat, Roundup is about as toxic as tap water.

This latest episode underscores how appalling Mahi Pono’s behavior has been towards Maui residents and our island environment. Residents and visitors have already been subjected to widespread smoke from fires on weedy, neglected Mahi Pono property, and clouds of red dust from its sneaky, nighttime over-tilling. Now some residents may have to worry that, besides Monsanto/Bayer (which just paid a $10.2 million fine for its wrongful pesticide use), there’s a new toxic pesticide-using entity on Maui that apparently has no intention of being truthful or transparent with its neighbors.

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