Hundreds Testify on GMO and Pesticide Bill
More than 100 Molokai residents sat all day outside Molokai’s county offices last Tuesday, waiting to testify on a proposed Maui County bill aimed at regulating pesticide use and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
As currently written, the bill would establish mandatory disclosure requirements for commercial agricultural companies using certain quantities of pesticides, create buffer zones around schools, other public areas and bodies of water, and require public notification before pesticide applications. It also calls for the county to complete studies on the possible environmental and health impacts of large-scale agricultural companies that use pesticides and GMOs.
Introduced by Maui Council Member Elle Cochran, the bill resembles one passed into law on Kauai in November. It cites the ability of pesticides to contaminate groundwater, their possible toxicity to humans, animals and insects, and the propensity of chemicals to drift, causing environmental pollution and wider-spread health concerns.
“I believe it’s people’s right to ask for disclosure,” said Cochran. “We’re not trying to put anyone out of business… it’s emotional for many people.”
On Tuesday, the bill was heard for the first time by the Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs (PIA) Committee of the County Council, receiving testimony from nearly 100 people on Maui, Molokai and Lanai. Because not all those signed up to testify were able to be heard that day, the meeting was continued on Friday.
Between the two days, 116 testifiers from Molokai shared their opinion on the bill, known as PIA 58, using the county’s interactive communication system. Council members alternated hearing testimony in person on Maui, and Molokai testifiers over the phone.
Personal for Both Sides
The bill brought widespread opposition from Monsanto and Mycogen employees on Molokai, as well as some support from residents who say they are concerned for the health and safety of their community. On Maui, the testimony was more evenly split between those opposing and favoring the proposal.
For those who feel commercial cultivation and testing of genetically modified crops and large scale use of pesticides pose health and environmental concerns, many feel PIA 58 is a step in the right direction.
“This is a weak bill, but it’s a stepping stone,” said Molokai resident Kalaniua Ritte, who supports the bill. “It’s not about kicking these guys [Monsanto and Mycogen] off the island, it’s just about respect… You can still have your job without spraying next to our homes. If you gotta do it, just don’t do it near our kids.”
But for employees of Molokai’s seed companies, it’s just as personal.
“I oppose this bill because I don’t want to lose my job,” was a testimony heard repeatedly on Tuesday.
“That’s the sense they have,” said Adolph Helm, Mycogen project manager on Molokai, adding the company has not specifically told employees that they may lose their jobs. “Adding regulatory oversight could potentially raise expenses… that could have an impact.”
Many who oppose the bill feel that sufficient regulations for pesticide use already exist at the state and federal level, and question the need for additional laws.
“The label is the law,” said Dawn Bicoy, community affairs manager for Monsanto Molokai, explaining the pesticide labels already contain rules the applicator must follow, including wind speed, distances from public areas and how long after application the area can be accessed. She called some of the proposed regulations in the bill “arbitrary.”
“All of these things are already studied and addressed,” she said. “It takes seven to 10 years of good lab standards before a new pesticide is released by the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency].”
But advocates of PIA 58 say current regulations are not enough.
According to The Maui News, Dr. Lorrin Pang, state Health Department Maui District health officer, testified in favor of PIA 58 on his own behalf.
“I’m for the bill. This is the first step in the disclosure in the correct regulation of GMO farming practices. My issue is not with the farmers. . . . My issue is with the regulators and with the all-encompassing guys that set the rules,” he said, via Maui News.
For Dave Gilliland, Mycogen’s breeding and introgression station leader, opposition to the bill isn’t so much about the bill itself, but what it represents.
“For years, we’ve been subject to anti-agriculture legislation directed at biotechnology,” he said via email. “This tactic has not been successful so now the activists have shifted their focus to other areas in an attempt to reduce our freedom to operate, such as unnecessarily limiting pesticide use… One concern is the added burden of the regulations on operations and uncertainty around where these types of actions ultimately lead.”
Bill Is a “Work in Progress”
Councilmembers heard testimony from residents living near fields sprayed regularly who claimed various types of sickness from chemical poisoning, as well as from small farmers who feel the bill is targeting them.
Molokai’s Andrew Arce said he’s a Mycogen employee but also a homesteader with his own farm, which he says would be affected if the pesticide buffer zone becomes law. Though he has a restricted use pesticide license, he says he uses them on a need-only basis.
“I use all kinds of insecticides… organic, bio control, and the last resort would be general and restricted use chemicals,” he said. “We as farmers need to have an open mind.”
He said home and individual use of chemical sprays isn’t as heavily regulated as commercial operators, and the pesticide use of ag companies now “is safe compared to the pineapple industry” that used to be on Molokai.
Maui farmer James Falconer also testified against the bill, even though he said he does not use restricted use chemicals and operates an “almost organic” farm.
“I oppose this bill only because of how it’s written,” he said, describing it as discriminatory and targeting farmers while other types of companies and even state departments also use pesticides. “We’re not the only [chemical spray] users… we need to find a way to make this equal.”
Cochran thanked him for his testimony, calling the bill “a work in progress.”
“This bill needs more work and input,” she said.
Even many of those who favor PIA 58 said they don’t want it to affect local, small-scale farming.
“I am for small farmers, especially on Molokai, to advocate for some type of resolution if this bill passes because they are not the issue,” testified Kanoelani Davis. “[Small-scale use of pesticides is] no comparison to the mass distribution of chemicals in one largely given area. There needs to be a stop to moving into highly populated areas…”
Fellow Molokai resident and parent Jay Duquette agreed.
“We’re not anti-farming. We want people to be able to support their families,” he said. “We just want everyone to live the quality of life they deserve. I don’t want to worry about my kids’ health at school…. We’re just here to protect the kids — why would anyone be fighting that?”
Cochran stressed that the bill will undergo many more revisions before council members take a vote.
“We can adjust these things,” she said in response to concerns about the bill negatively impacting small farmers. “I would never do something to harm families and farming.”
The Kauai bill that PIA 58 is modeled after is currently under legal heat from three major agrochemical companies, Dupont, Syngenta and Agrigentics Inc. The companies have filed a lawsuit in federal court that claims the law is unconstitutional.
Meanwhile, Hawaii State Legislature is hearing two bills also related to GMOs. Senate Bill 2736 would require labeling of food containing genetically modified ingredients, while Senate Bill 3058 and House Bill 2506 would amend Hawaii’s Right to Farm Act to limit the power of counties to pass laws limiting the rights of farmers to “engage in modern farming and ranching practices” — which would overturn PIA 58 and other county laws regulating GMOs.
“I have a feeling that whether this county passes something or not, it’s not going to end,” said Cochran referring to concerns over GMOs and pesticide use. “We are part of a bigger picture.”
With all Maui County testimony received by council members on PIA 58, a date has yet to be set for the council to begin discussion and revisions on the bill.