November 19, 2019

GUEST ROOM | Students Should Continue to Question the Ethics of the Cornell Alliance for Science

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The Cornell community has come to learn about the questionable ethics of the Cornell Alliance for Science through a former Alliance fellow Julia Feliz in recent weeks. I am writing to applaud the Student Assembly for passing a statement in support of Feliz  and to share the experience with the Alliance my community has had on the small island of Kauaʻi. This is not the first time the Cornell Alliance for Science’s practices have impacted individuals from communities of color and undermined social justice. I’ve seen it here in Hawaiʻi where community members and I have been organizing for years to pass common sense pesticide regulations — and where Cornell Alliance for Science funded fellows have aggressively fought us.

In the 1980’s, the sugar plantations started moving overseas in search of cheaper labor and less regulation and, in the last decade, completely ended operations on our islands. As plantations left, biotechnology corporations moved in. By 2015, biotech seed crops represented the second largest acreage grown in Hawaiʻi. Today, Hawaiʻi is home to the largest experimental biotech field trials in the world. The majority of this agricultural land in Kauaʻi, where I live, is located on the West Side, home to our island’s largest concentration of Native Hawaiians.

These fields are sprayed with some of the highest rates of “restricted use” pesticides per acre, among the most toxic to people and ecosystems, yet they are located directly adjacent to schools, hospitals and residential neighborhoods. In two separate incidents, in 2006 and 2008, students and teachers at a school bordering a Syngenta test field experienced acute health issues, with some evacuated to a nearby hospital. Syngenta and other chemical companies operating on our island summarily dismissed the community’s concerns that the illnesses were associated with pesticide spraying. But with no testing for pesticide exposure, no mandatory disclosure of what was sprayed or when, the cause of the illnesses could never definitively be attributed to pesticide exposure.

In the wake of these incidents, our small island community began to organize to pass “right to know” legislation and basic protections. The policies we were advocating for included requirements that the agrochemical industry disclose what they were spraying, conduct an environmental impact study and create pesticide-free buffer zones around schools and other sensitive areas.

In 2013, as the effort to pass these county-level regulations picked up steam, Cornell Alliance for Science associates came to our island to undermine community concerns about pesticides. It was the beginning of a massive public relations disinformation campaign designed to silence community concerns.

As organizing efforts expanded and more community members spoke up in support of these policies, paid Cornell Alliance for Science fellows — under the guise of scientific expertise — launched vicious attacks. They used social media and wrote dozens of blog posts condemning impacted community members and other leaders who had the courage to speak up. I, the staff and board members of the organization where I work were subjected to Alliance for Science bloggers’ character assassinations, misrepresentations and attacks on personal and professional credibility.

Despite these attacks, community outcry for “right to know” legislation and protections grew. We successfully passed county-wide pesticide regulations in 2013. The industry took us to court and overturned our legislation based on statewide implied preemption. So, we organized again, this time for statewide pesticide regulations in Hawaiʻi. In December 2016, the Alliance for Science opened an official Hawaiʻi chapter to continue to attack our campaign.

Thanks to our diverse coalition of community members, doctors and nurses, teachers and public health professionals, we achieved a huge win for social justice. In June 2018, the Governor of Hawaiʻi signed Act 45 into law, which requires mandatory disclosure of restricted use pesticides usage, small RUP buffer zones around schools, a drift monitoring study and most notably the nation’s first ban on the brain-damaging insecticide, chlorpyrifos.

All of this was fought vociferously by the Cornell Alliance for Science affiliated fellows. So yes, we won, but years have passed that the industry has been able to keep spraying pesticides without oversight. There is a huge community price for that. There is another price: The Alliance for Science-funded attacks have had a huge impact on our small, close-knit rural community.

It is challenging to have the courage to speak up when the biotech industry is a major employer in our community. On our island, it is likely that either a family member or a friend is employed by one of those companies. In our case, the industry and Alliance bloggers have aggressively exploited these tensions, branding those raising concerns about pesticide exposure as “anti-agriculture, “anti-fact” or “ignorant, anti-science demagogues.” They’ve used vicious divide-and-conquer tactics to silence those critical of the pesticides used on biotech crops. I have personally witnessed families and lifelong friendships torn apart.

Thank you Mx. Feliz for refusing to be silenced even when it was uncomfortable. Thank you, Cornell Student Assembly, for standing in solidarity with Mx. Feliz. I sincerely hope the students, faculty and alumni of Cornell will continue to dig deeper into the activities of the Alliance for Science and demand better from their academy.

Fern Anuenue Holland is a community organizer for Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action. Comments may be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com.