Giant agro-chemical corporations and environmental advocates can agree on at least one thing: Glyphosate is an efficient killer. The chemical, also known by the trade names Roundup and Ranger Pro, was developed and marketed by Monsanto in the ‘70s to kill weeds, and since then has become the most heavily used herbicide in the world. Where agro-chemical corporations and environmentalists diverge, however, is in what glyphosate has the power to kill. Some, like the nonprofit organization Beyond Pesticides, believe that the chemical is deadly to the point of being ecologically damaging and harmful to human health. Bayer (now the owner of Monsanto), meanwhile, defends the product as safe.
The disagreement came to a head last year, when Dewayne “Lee” Johnson won $78 million in a historic lawsuit against Monsanto for his claim that glyphosate caused his cancer, non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Johnson recalled his story as part of a presentation to a group of county legislators and department representatives gathered in the Maui Planning Department Conference room for a June 17 Beyond Pesticides meeting titled “Pesticides, the public, the law, and you.”
As the integrated pest manager for a school district in California, Johnson regularly applied the herbicide, resulting in two major glyphosate exposure events on his skin. Soon after, Johnson experienced symptoms including marks on his skin that grew worse over time. After being diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, he reached out to the Miller Firm which advertised legal representation for people with the cancer who were also exposed to glyphosate. Johnson soon discovered that he wasn’t the only one in this situation and there were others who had “been exposed and paid off in silence.”
“I think people are starting to see that there is something going on with this product,” he told the audience. “I’m living proof of that. I’m the weed that didn’t die.”
The Shift: Rethinking Pest Management
“To be honest, nothing is going to kill everything as cheap as Roundup,” said Beyond Pesticides Hawai‘i program director Autumn Ness, who organized the event. “Product for product, there’s never going to be a cheaper, more deadly alternative.”
Instead, she said, what’s needed is a shift in perspectives and actions toward pest management. The question needs to change from “‘What’s the Roundup substitute?’ to ‘How are we going to do things differently?” Ness explained.
Applying chemicals “might be the fastest and easiest way,” agreed Johnson, “but it’s not the best way.”
“What I really hated about the process [of spraying chemicals] is that it’s so repetitive and it’s like you’re not really killing the weed,” he said. “You’re killing the top of the weed, but you’re not killing the source, the root ball, [and] the root is getting stronger and stronger.”
But that’s the way people have managed pests and weeds for years, Johnson explained, making the shift toward alternative management an uphill battle against entrenched mindsets. It’s a battle that Westin Maui Resort assistant chief engineer and Edaphic Landscaping consultant Duane Sparkman has been fighting for years. Sparkman, who was also part of the Beyond Pesticides panel, maintains that the efficacy and price of using alternative methods are comparable to traditional chemicals.
Sparkman previously worked in a national park, where the application of chemicals was strictly monitored. “We tried other alternatives to stop or mitigate weeds,” he said. That included “mainly manual removal… one thing I did not ever do… is put down fertilizer.” So when he moved from the national park to private work in Wailea and Makena, he was curious why he was asked to put down so much fertilizer.
It sparked his interest in edaphology, “the study of how plants above ground relate to the soil microbes underground; it’s a way of looking at how we keep things alive and thriving by not applying chemistry.”
Sparkman applied this knowledge at the Westin when he took over six years ago. The hotel’s chemical practices were based around golf course maintenance, he said, but that’s a problem because golfers are typically covered in clothing whereas hotel guests around the plants near pools and beaches “wear bikinis, they wear thongs, they don’t wear much clothing.”
“You don’t want these people exposed,” Sparkman said.
His first task was to clear out the chemical storage, “which was quite frightening.” In the process he went from 20 chemicals down to three, while not affecting his team or his guests.
“To be honest, a lot of the stuff [chemicals] we use is not necessary,” Sparkman said. “It really isn’t, whenever we know we have labor available to us.” Plus, in addition to manual removal, there are a lot of “remedies that are right of your kitchen,” he explained, including vinegars, rubber mats, hot water, lemon juice, fatty acids from coconuts and goat’s milk, pine needles, and compost. Further, careful watering practices and smart selection of plants for the soil and environment conditions lessen the need for chemical inputs.
However, as Ness pointed out, these alternatives require research, resources, and testing that may be out of the scope of what “chronically overworked and underfunded” county departments can execute. In addition to offering her organization as a resource, she pointed out that there should also be a shift in how manpower and labor are allocated.
“What are your highest priority parks?” Ness asked. “The things people play Little League on, the things that are right in the center of town – you want those parks to look good. But the parks that are way in the back of your neighborhoods, that are only used for people to walk their dog and for people to bring their toddlers to roll around in the dirt or in the grass while everybody else is at work – those don’t need to look amazing.”
Ness added that she did an informal survey at some of these neighborhood parks and asked people if they would rather the park be a “little bit weedy” and maintained with mowing, or manicured perfectly and sprayed regularly. “Nine and a half times out of 10, the person who’s in that park will say, ‘I’d rather you just mow over the weeds,’” she said. “So you’re using the same amount of manpower, you’re just switching where you’re using it.”
“Right now our guys are spraying Dicamba [herbicide] on clover patches,” she explained.
“Don’t kill clover,” Sparkman chimed in. “Just mow over the clover; clover will store nitrogen in the soil for your other plants to use.” His comment addressed another shift in the planting and growing paradigm toward a more symbiotic relationship between man and land that could minimize the use of chemicals.
“I’m more of a gardener than a landscaper,” he said. “[Landscapers] have a few accounts… and they want to get done quick. I’m more of the person that wants people in the landscape working with the land because you bring more energy to the land.
“We talk about mana in Hawai‘i; I totally believe it. The more time you spend in your garden, the more beneficial that garden is for you, and it’s better for it. It’s a really great symbiotic relationship. I want more manual labor in my garden, so I don’t mind spending more time with my guys there. It’s better for me; it’s also better for the land.”
Ness recalled an incident from years ago when she was working as an assistant with then Councilmember Elle Cochran, when parents were upset because their children got rashes after playing in a county field that was sprayed just days prior. Sparkman and Ness visited the park and showed the Little League team how to manually remove the weeds. The team decided to pull the weeds themselves, Sparkman said, and it only took about 15 minutes.
“If you can get the kids into it, then maybe they’ll want to get into turf management when they get older,” he added. “It makes them want to be a gardener, maybe a farmer… There’s a lot of farming coming and we got to get more kids and the next generation into agribusiness and agriculture.”
Johnson pointed to Mackenzie Feldman, who was sitting nearby. A student and volleyball player at Cal Berkeley, Feldman led the charge to eliminate pesticide use on the volleyball courts where her team practiced. Her story is another example of community engagement as an alternative to chemicals.
“Our team just decided to have workdays,” Feldman said. “Before practice, we would pick the weeds. We’ve only had to do that twice and it took like 15 minutes. Super easy.”
What’s Next: Legislation and Policy
“This is not about blaming anybody for anything or talking about what we’re doing wrong,” Ness said. To her, it was about addressing “the reality” of pesticide use. “No matter how you slice it, we can do better.”
While she didn’t lay blame on the county or other officials for using chemicals like glyphosate, it was clear that the panel’s stance is that the chemical is harmful to humans and ecosystems, and that the organization hopes to pressure decision-makers to eliminate glyphosate use.
Referencing an author who wrote “plausible deniability is not an option” when it comes to the dangers of glyphosate, Ness said, “We could have said a little while ago that ‘we didn’t know’ or ‘maybe,’ but now – after this is becoming so legally clear – as people that are responsible for public lands, we can’t say that ‘we didn’t know’ anymore… Let’s just stop [using glyphosate].” Ness also mentioned runoff and the disappearance of limu (algae) as another consequence of glyphosate use.
Added Sparkman, “We have humongous areas in Makawao that store millions and millions of gallons of water. We have to be careful of what’s applied around those water sources. It really behooves the general public and us to really look at that and how we can protect our people.”
But despite Johnson’s court victory, things are not simple regarding pesticide regulation. Bayer is appealing the decision, and when asked for comment about Johnson’s settlement and the Beyond Pesticides panel, company spokesperson Richard Meier told me “Bayer stands behind the safety of our products and will defend them. Regulatory authorities have concluded that glyphosate-based herbicides can be used safely as directed and that glyphosate is not carcinogenic.”
Bayer’s statement referenced a proposed interim registration review decision issued in April by the US Environmental Protection Agency which said “The EPA thoroughly assessed risks to humans from exposure to glyphosate from all uses and all routes of exposure and did not identify any risks of concern.”
This conclusion is not without dispute. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, an organization funded by the World Health Organization, lists glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” University of California molecular toxicology researcher Michael Davoran told the Guardian in March, “The lifetime risk of developing [non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma] is usually around one in 50, so what this means is that in populations who are exposed to the very highest levels of glyphosate, it moves to around one in 35… But the bulk of the risk, as with any cancer, is still going to be due to other factors, including, in part, strings of ‘bad luck’ mutations in a given set of cells.”
Davoran continued, “A lot of the studies backing glyphosate have been funded by entities in a position to profit from the continuing sales… And many of those which point towards significant risks are funded by groups who are either engaged in lawsuits against the makers of glyphosate, or are in the position to benefit from sales of glyphosate alternatives. So it gets very, very tricky.”
This trickiness has made legislation and policy changes slow-coming and controversial. While a County Parks Department employee was eager to share his efforts to reduce pesticide dependence with me after the meeting, he did not return my subsequent requests for comment. Parks Department director Karla Peters directed me to county spokesperson Brian Perry, who did not respond by deadline to my inquiry into whether the county or its departments had a policy regarding the use of glyphosate. However, both Peters and Department of Public Works director Rowena Dagdag-Andaya told the Maui News that there are significant hurdles to overcome before completely eliminating pesticides. (The Hawai‘i Department of Education, meanwhile, sent out a memo on June 26 affirming that herbicides are banned at Hawai‘i public schools, the Star-Advertiser reported Wednesday. The memo was sent in response to testimony heard at a Monday Board of Education meeting that was attended by Beyond Pesticides and Lee Johnson.)
So it seems that hope for a pesticide-free county will have to come from legislation.
“We now know the human and environmental dangers of using toxic pesticides and herbicides,” said Councilmember Shane Sinenci, who chairs the Environmental, Agricultural, and Cultural Preservation Committee. “We have the ability to use sustainable practices and environmentally friendly pest and weed control. This approach can be very effective and cost efficient.” Sinenci said he will be working this summer “with the Department of Public Works and the Department of Parks and Recreation to finalize [a] bill. I feel encouraged that we are able to work together to do what is responsible for the environment, county workers, and residents.”
Johnson would agree that this is a good move. “This fight is bigger than me,” he said. “It’s serious. Your county could be sued.”
“Over 40 cities and counties have passed laws restricting the use of glyphosate and all synthetic pesticides,” said Sinenci. “We can follow their lead.”
Photos by Chelsie Machado