LIHUE — The Kauai County Council unanimously voted to move forward a bill that would allow the county to govern the use of pesticides and genetically modified organisms on the island.
During his closing remarks, Councilman Tim Bynum, who co-introduced Bill 2491 along with Councilman Gary Hooser, described the issue as “serious.”
“We’re talking about people’s lives, people’s livelihoods,” he said. “There are very sincere and passionate people on both sides.”
At 9:30 p.m. Wednesday — after roughly six hours of testimony from dozens of local residents and biotech company employees — the council approved the bill on first reading, sending it to a public hearing July 31.
A location for the hearing is not confirmed. Council Chair Jay Furfaro said he would be looking for a place able to accommodate a larger crowd. About 1,000 attended Wednesday’s meeting but only roughly 100 at a time were allowed in the council chambers.
During his eight years as a state senator (2002-2010), Hooser said he worked on many different and important issues.
“I think at the end of the day this will be the most important one that I’ve worked on, and maybe will work on,” he said. “It has tangible impacts to people’s lives and to our environment.”
The bill calls for Kauai’s largest agricultural corporations — namely DuPont Pioneer, Syngenta, DOW AgroSciences, BASF and Kauai Coffee — to disclose the use of pesticides and the presence of GMO crops. It would also establish pesticide-free buffer zones around public areas and waterways, ban open-air testing of experimental crops and place a temporary moratorium on the commercial production of GMOs, until the county can conduct an environmental impact statement on the industry’s effects on Kauai.
Hooser believes the issue will never be resolved by the state Legislature, which is why he has chosen to fight it at the county level.
Councilman Ross Kagawa said he feels privileged to be part of the ongoing discussion and is confident that the council will come to a “fair solution in the end.”
Councilman Mel Rapozo agreed that he and his colleagues are dealing with a controversial topic, and said council members received more than 1,000 emails in the few days leading up to Wednesday’s meeting.
“I’m looking forward to a very healthy and factual debate,” he said.
On Wednesday, hundreds of workers from the four seed companies on Kauai attended the meeting. Several signed up to testify against the bill.
Peter Wiederoder, the Kauai site leader for Dow, said that while Bill 2491 is labeled as a “right to know” bill, it is not.
“It’s a bill that limits our right to operate, and our freedom to operate as a company,” he said.
Wiederoder added that what Dow is doing on Kauai and around the state is no different than what’s being done in its parent seed facilities on the Mainland, in Puerto Rico and in South America.
“This isn’t ground zero for GMO production or for seed production,” he said. “This bill, however, will make this county ground zero … for legislation. This is new.”
Cindy Goldstein, spokeswoman for DuPont Pioneer, testified that the 500-foot buffer zone would significantly reduce the amount of land Pioneer would be able to farm. She said the company handles pesticides “in a manner that is safe and consistent with the requirements of the label.”
“This bill would create confusion and inconsistencies, where a few, but not all, farming operations would be expected to follow another set of rules and guidelines that conflict with requirements that are actually specified now on the labels of those products,” she said.
While testifying on behalf of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, Mark Phillipson of Syngenta displayed a map of the Mana Plain on Kauai’s Westside and how the buffer zone would affect biotech operations there.
“We would lose 90 percent of our lands,” he said. “So it is restrictive. It is inhibiting business. It drives the business right out.”
Phillipson reminded the council that like those in support of the bill, Syngenta’s employees also live and work in the community.
“We care about this community,” he said. “And the last thing we want to do is harm anybody or anything.”
Jeri Di Pietro, a founding member of GMO-Free Kauai and Hawaii Seed, urged the county to join the people of Kauai in requesting disclosure about what pesticides are being sprayed, as well as when and where they are sprayed.
She said the ongoing experimental testing of pesticides and GMO crops on Kauai is “the most destructive thing happening to our environment, to our families and to our visitor industry.”
“Why would we put that at risk?” she asked.
Fern Rosenstiel of Ohana O Kauai told the council that its primary responsibility is to represent the people and ensure their “tiny voices” are heard.
“We are sitting here simply fighting for the right to know,” she said. “We are fighting for a bill that does not evict, nor ban, nor even stop their actions over the moratorium, but instead simply gives us public disclosure.”
Rosenstiel said she believes the only logical explanation for the biotech companies to avoid disclosure and fight Bill 2491 is a “genuine desire to hide” details about the 3.5 tons of restricted use pesticides sprayed annually on Kauai.
“Profits and jobs will never be more important than the health of our community and environment,” she said.
Professional surfer and mixed martial arts fighter Dustin Barca, also of Ohana O Kauai, told the council there is “big corruption in the government right now with the biotech industry.”
He mentioned Michael Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Clarence Thomas, and their ties to the biotech corporations.
“Who can we trust in our government?” he asked.
Speaking on behalf of the people who marched against GMOs in Poipu back in March, Barca said those same people are pulling for the council to make the right decision about the bill.
“Five hundred to 1,000 jobs isn’t worth the health of 30,000 other people,” he said. “And you know, I feel like it’s time to put human health over corporate wealth.”
• Chris D’Angelo, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.