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Council to hear GMO bill today

Industry questions bill’s legality and potential impacts on operations

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Kauaii’s South Shore is seen here in an undated photo. Kauai County Council will hear House Bill 2491 related to pesticides and GMOs today.

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LIHUE — Five days after the official announcement, Kauai County Councilman Gary Hooser will introduce House Bill 2491 related to pesticides and genetically modified organisms to his colleagues.

A large crowd, including representatives of the major agricultural companies, the Center for Food Safety and local groups, is expected at today’s council meeting, beginning at 9 a.m. in the Historic County Building in Lihue.

Jerry Ornellas, president of the Kauai County Farm Bureau, said the bill could be a “game changer — from a local debate to one between hired guns.”

“The debate may take on a new dimension,” he said, “in which you now have large national groups battling it out here on Kauai.”

Should it pass today’s first reading, the ordinance will no doubt face many challenges, both politically and legally.

“Without a doubt the industry is going to say, ‘This is not your guys’ kuleana. This is not a county issue. This is a federal issue. This is a state issue. We already have layers and layers of bureaucracy and regulations,’” Hooser said.

However, he believes none of those state and federal layers are protecting the Kauai community from the rapid, long-term and unregulated growth of the industry and its potential impacts.

Hooser says the county has the authority to consider, and pass, such an ordinance. Others are less convinced.

Laurie Yoshida, a spokeswoman for DuPont Pioneer on Kauai, said Monday there are concerns with how the bill is written and that the company’s legal team is looking at the constitutionality of the bill as a whole, as well as the legality of individual clauses.  

“We do have various people reviewing it, what its implications are, and how it may affect us or not,” she said.

Yoshida points out that Pioneer and other seed companies are already regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

“This is additional layers,” she said of the proposed bill. “Obviously, as a company, we feel there are a lot of layers as is.”

Unlike many GMO-related bills that call for labeling, Hooser’s would require Kauai’s largest agricultural entities — namely DuPont Pioneer, Syngenta, DOW AgroSciences, BASF and Kauai Coffee Co. — to disclose the use of pesticides and the presence of genetically engineered crops to the county.

Those five companies account for 99 percent of the 3.5 tons of restricted use pesticides used annually on Kauai, according to Hooser.

The bill would also establish pesticide-free buffer zones around public areas and bodies of water, ban open-air testing of experimental pesticides and crops, and place a moratorium on the commercial production of GMOs until the county can complete an Environmental Impact Statement on the industry’s effects.

Mark Phillipson, head of corporate affairs for Syngenta Hawaii, said his company is also reviewing the ordinance and the potential impacts it may have on its Kauai operations.

“We’re taking it very seriously,” he said. “It’s something that we’re looking at very carefully.”

While it is traditionally an area of state and federal regulation, Scott McFarland of DOW AgroSciences said the bill provides “a bold opportunity to engage the community in hopefully a positive and productive discussion about pesticides and GMOs.”

Phillipson said employees from all the seed companies are expected to attend today’s council meeting.

Phone calls to Kauai Coffee and BASF were not returned by press time.

Ornellas views the bill as a classic case of “shifting the burden to the intervenor” — the county. While he understand the concerns of the community, he isn’t sure the county can or should take on such a task.

“Personally, I don’t know that the county has the resources to take this kind of regulatory stance,” he said.

In order to govern the commercial use of pesticides and GMOs, Ornellas said the county would have to hire workers trained in pesticide law and enforcement.

McFarland and Yoshida agree.

“In order to enforce this, I mean literally, the county has to create a new division in Public Works,” Yoshida said. “Is the county willing to put up that money?”

When it comes to the argument of expense, including the cost of an EIS, Hooser argues you can’t put a price tag on human life, health and the environment.

“No one is studying the net result of the impacts of this industry on our island,” he said. “And clearly, if you just read these (pesticide) labels, and read some of the studies in general on GMOs, there’s plenty of reason for concern.”

Yoshida also questions the county’s liability should it pass a bill it can’t enforce.

“The actual implementation of some of this is not as cut and dry as it would appear on paper,” she said.

While she could not provide specific acreage, Yoshida said the 500-foot pesticide-free buffer zone would certainly affect DuPont’s operations, as some of the company’s agricultural fields are next to public roadways.

“Some of the buffer zones really restrict the amount of available land we have to farm on,” she said.

Bill 2491 would also require major agricultural entities that use large amounts of restricted use pesticides to disclose the use of all pesticides, as well as post signage 72 hours before and after application.

“(Many times) we don’t know 72 hours in advance,” Yoshida said. “So what would end up happening is we would have a bunch of meaningless signs.”

Hooser maintains that the broader community is concerned about pesticide use and “will understand this is a reasonable and necessary effort by Kauai County to protect their health and environment.”

“All we want to do is know,” he said.

Hawaiian rights activist Walter Ritte of Molokai, who flew to Kauai in order to testify during today’s meeting, said Kauai has every reason to take the lead role in the fight against GMOs, given the large presence of biotech companies here.

“This is really big stuff for the county to actually flex its muscle and take on the state and federal guys,” he said. “So far, nobody else has listened. We can’t penetrate the state and federal guys.”

When it comes to the agricultural industry in Hawaii, Ritte says there are many unanswered questions.

“That’s what I like about this bill,” he said. “We’re starting to ask.”

In the bill, Hooser cites Hawaii Revised Statute Section 46-1.5, which states each county “shall have the power to enact ordinances deemed necessary to protect health, life and property, and to preserve the order and security of the county and its inhabitants.”

Hooser pointed out that Senate Bill 727, introduced in January by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, would have deleted the words “health” and “life.”

“We caught it and it didn’t pass,” he said.

• Chris D’Angelo, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or cdangelo@thegardenisland.com.

1 image

Contributed photo

A field with experimental genetically engineered corn near Koloa Mill on

Kauaii’s South Shore is seen here in an undated photo. Kauai County Council will hear House Bill 2491 related to pesticides and GMOs today.

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