UH cuts off funding after failing to silence agriculture professor
By HECTOR VALENZUELA and LORRIN PANG
The Maui News, 26 September 2006
For the past few years we have been speaking out for stricter regulation of genetically engineered crops. Our agency heads told us to do this on our own time and expense since our views were not the "official position."
Some have asked that we not be allowed to voice private views since the public might think we speak officially. However, it is imperative that government employees be permitted to state their expert opinions, even privately, to ensure that decision makers and the public make judgments based on the whole story, rather than only on officially sanctioned views.
For example, a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture internal audit report showed serious gaps in the oversight of GE crops, which could result in the unintended "escape" of unapproved organisms into the environment. Also, a federal judge ruled recently that the Hawaii Department of Agriculture failed to require environmental impact studies prior to the planting of GE biopharmaceutical crops in clear violation of federal laws.
In hindsight there were probably people within these agencies who saw these regulatory system failures, but were hesitant to speak out or were even silenced. We, too, are insiders simply trying to get our agencies to uphold federal laws designed to protect us all. One would hope that we might now be encouraged to speak up. Sadly this is not the case.
At the time of the judges ruling, a Maui-based UH administrator circulated a memo to UH staff threatening to cut off support for my (Valenzuela's) organic workshops and educational activities in Maui County because I was planning to talk on crop biotechnology at a Maui event. According to this derogatory memo:
"If Hector shows up here Tuesday (as advertised) for GMO-free Maui's presentation of the "Pandora's Box" movie to lead the Q & A session with Lorrin Pang, then there will be no support of any kind out of this office to assist any workshop, activity or any other endeavor with which he is affiliated . . . It would be insane for me to assist him in Maui County - hiding behind a guise of free-speech on personal time . . . if he shows up to spew his intellectual vitriol on Tuesday (or any other time if it is for the same purpose), no assistance in any form will be provided from here on activities to which he is related. . . . It is insulting to our organization and to several of our clients. . . . There are enough nut jobs here without helping a CTAHR-grown one." CTAHR is the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at Manoa.
I did speak on Maui and support has been suspended. Ironically this questionable retaliatory move was done on taxpayer time and money. It is hoped that the memo's author will have the integrity to come forward and state his case regarding the use of retaliation and limits on First Amendment rights.
Whistle-blower laws protect insiders expressing views and taking actions that uphold federal laws, but how many government employees fear repercussions and hold their tongues or even speak contrary to what they think is true?
Even we sometimes tone down our opinions out of fear for our jobs. Decision-makers (legislators and judges) might be getting very distorted views of the real risks of GE crops. If government employees were encouraged rather than discouraged to speak out, what picture would decision makers get? Or if we too could speak on government time and travel expense, what then would the rulings be?
It is assumed that industry spokespersons distort the truth for financial reasons, or worse, that those in government with industry ties may be blind to the truth, which was shown to be true at the FDA. We all know about this type of conflict of interest. But how many citizens consider that the picture they are given about GMOs is distorted because insiders are silenced out of "conflict of fear?" When there are threats within regulating/scientific agencies against insiders trying to uphold federal rules, we must appeal to the courts and the public as our last resort.
The public should be made aware that this is how tax dollars are spent behind the scenes in spite of the appearance of "fair play" and "openness." Henceforth we expect to be protected by whistle-blower rules. Threats of retaliation must no longer be tolerated.
As David Stockman was quoted in US News magazine, it is necessary to change a system where "in policymaking, powerful interests tend to trump powerful arguments." Until this "process" is fixed we now realize that there is no sense in even arguing the science. And so, these are indeed sad days for Hawaii and America.
We are writing as private citizens.
Hector Valenzuela is a specialist in the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at Manoa.
Dr. Lorrin Pang is the state Department of Health, Maui District health officer.