LIHUE — More than 1,000 people came to Kauai Veterans Center Wednesday to attend a public hearing on a proposal that has put Kauai on the spotlight across the state and has sharply divided island residents.
Bill 2491, introduced by Kauai County Councilman Gary Hooser, would demand disclosure of pesticide use and the presence of genetically modified organisms, and would set up pesticide-free buffer zones for large agricultural operations.
Just down the road from Lihue Airport, it looked more like a soccer match laced with everlasting rivalry was going on rather than the council hearing public testimony from both sides of the issue.
On the grassy area fronting KVC, a lively crowd sporting either blue or red shirts waved signs and cheered to passing motorists, who in turn would blast their horns. On the parking lot, hundreds mingled, with their sides easily identified by the color of their shirt — blue for GMO and against the bill; red for anti-GMO and for the bill.
Inside KVC, emotions were also high, and Hooser had to constantly remind the public to not cheer, applaud or boo public speakers.
But the issue was much more serious and complex than winning a championship. It was about voicing concerns on a proposal that some say could either destabilize the economy on Kauai’s Westside or contribute to an already high incidence of cancer, respiratory and neurological diseases in that corner of the island.
Peter Wiederoder, site manager for Dow Agrosciences, said his company wouldn’t be farming on Kauai if the bill passes without any type of modification.
“Basically it means there is a large portion of our farms we cannot use any type of pesticides, not just restricted, but also general use,” he said. “If we can’t use any pesticides, we would not be able get yields that we would need in our farm production. Basically our companies would take that production to a different island.”
Dow has about 40 employees, and contracts another 80 to 120 people, according to Wiederoder.
Altogether, the GMO companies on Kauai — Dow, Pioneer, Syngenta and BASF — employ about 600 people. Kauai Coffee, another large agribusiness that buys a large amount of restricted use pesticides, would also be affected by the bill.
To Hollan Hamid, owner of Caffe Coco restaurant, the issue at stake is safety.
“I live about 700 feet from GMO fields in Poipu,” she said. “I have three kids, the tradewinds blow through the fields to my house and I want to make sure that I’m protected.”
Hamid said she tries to not use any GMO products in her restaurant’s menu. She added Caffe Coco uses local organic produce and locally caught fish.
Melissa Atkins, wearing a blue shirt, said her husband refuses to buy organic. In fact, she said, he thinks organic foods are a scam, and a lot of food scares have been connected to organic foods.
Atkins’ husband holds a master’s degree in agronomy and currently works for Syngenta as a field operations manager.
She said there is lot of misinformation and scare tactics regarding GMOs, but there has been many studies pointing to the their safety.
Atkins was holding her 3-month-old daughter, waiting to get inside KVC. Her husband, she said, works in the GMO fields, close to pesticides being sprayed, and is a healthy man.
“I even had a kid with him,” she said, laughing. Actually, Atkins and her husband have three children — their two young boys weren’t at the hearing. She said her daughter, their only child born on Kauai, is the healthiest of their kids.
Lori Hilles said if the GMO companies are forced out of Kauai, it would devastate the economy. The GMO companies employ about 600 people. If they lose their jobs, their families would be affected, causing a direct effect on about 2,000, and a ripple effect on all Westside businesses.
Hilles said she has been around GMOs almost her whole life and can attest for their safety.
Since she was 7 years old in Washington state, her father worked for a GMO company, and he still does. Hilles’ husband is a biologist who works as field operations manager for Pioneer. Together, they have two healthy children, a 5-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy who were at the hearing.
She said they are supportive of what the GMO companies are doing, solving issues to feed the world and creating plants that are resistant to pesticides.
“I totally believe they are safe, there has been 20 years of scientific research done,” Hilles said.
To Kalaheo resident Pat Gegen, sporting a red shirt, the bill would not drive GMO companies off the island.
“I’m not out to shut anybody down,” he said.
What he wanted is the information that is not available, the disclosure on pesticide use — and he had a reason for that.
Gegen said his wife is a nurse on Kauai’s Westside, and she has attended many patients with all kinds of symptons, but there isn’t enough information to understand their conditions. Additionally, the number of cases of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a rare cancer, is “definitely high” on the Westside, and one of the causes is pesticide use, he said.
As far as arguing that GMO regulations are restricted to state and federal agencies, Gegen said the tobacco industry is regulated by those agencies, but counties also have their laws regulating smoking. And regarding permitting, the county has a strict set of building permits to ensure safety, and should be no different with GMO crops.
“The permitting process is to make sure the procedures that are going on are safe,” he said.
Inside KVC, the blue shirts dominated by about two-to-one the crowd of more than 550 people. Outside the building, the red shirts had majority, with roughly two-to-one over the blues.
There were rumors that GMO companies paid hundreds of workers from off-island to fly in and attend the meeting, but Wiederoder said it wasn’t true, at least for Dow. He also said the company offered their employees to take the day off, and didn’t require them to attend the meeting. But many came in support.
“They’re obviously concerned, they’re actually fired up, you can tell by them being here,” Wiederoder said of the GMO employees.
Koloa resident and musician Kepa Kruse said the sad thing is that local residents have been divided by a third party coming from off-island. Inside KVC, he said, both sides of the issue were demonizing each other. Most of the people were wearing red or blue shirts, when they should be trying to find solutions together.
“They should all be wearing purple,” he said. After all, their goals were pretty similar.
“Both sides are fighting for the same thing, their families,” he said. “One side is fighting to feed their families; the other side is fighting to feed their families good food.”
If the Westside lands were used for solar farms, it would create more than 1,000 jobs and reduce the price of electricity on Kauai, which is the highest in the nation, he said.
“There has to be a unification of people for this to work,” Kruse said. “Otherwise, one side is going to lose.”
Kauai sustained itself for more than 1,000 years without outside contact, and without pesticides.
“It’s been proven already, so we can try to do it again,” Kruse said.
At the end of the day, the state government took a chunk of money from Kauai residents. There was a row of cars parked on the grass on the other side of Kapule Highway, across from KVC.
“They all got tickets,” a police officer said.
• Léo Azambuja, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0452 or email@example.com