Tuesday, Jan. 28, was a cold, wet and windy day, but the heavy weather did not deter the more than 100 people who packed the Maui County Council chambers in Wailuku. Of that number, more than 60 had signed up to testify by mid-day. Council staff said an estimated 70 to 100 more stood by to testify remotely from Molokai.
On the agenda was "Pesticides and Genetically Modified Organisms" (PIA-58), introduced by Councilmember Elle Cochran. The proposed legislation was being heard for the first time in the council's Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee (PIA) chaired by Councilmember Riki Hokama.
Its language was taken almost verbatim from a similar, highly controversial measure recently passed on Kaua'i, which is now the subject of what promises to be protracted litigation.
Councilmember Riki Hokama chaired the long and well-attended hearing of the council’s Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, hearing legislation introduced by Councilmember Elle Cochran. The measure would place new restrictions and penalties on agricultural pesticide users and growers of GMO crops.
A number of speakers observed that the measure seemed well intentioned. Its provisions include notification of neighbors when pesticides are about to be sprayed, setting up buffer zones around sensitive areas, such as schools, parks, healthcare and senior facilities, and improved reporting of the type and quantity of pesticides being used.
One size does not fit all
But almost unanimously, those who testified from the farm community opposed the legislation as "heavy-handed," "punitive," "draconian," "anti-farmer" and "anti-agriculture." They also said that the use and testing of pesticides is already extensively regulated by a host of government agencies at the state and federal level. They questioned the county's ability to enforce the measure if passed, and they further asserted that while it may have been suitable for Kaua'i, "one size does not fit all," saying Maui regulations, if any, should be tailored to Maui conditions.
Further, those who testified in opposition repeatedly asked: If the intent was to have better communication between the residential population and the farming community, why was the legislation introduced without any input from the ranks of agriculture?
Multiple speakers also pointed out that farmers are only one class of pesticide users, and if the goal was to upgrade safety, then why did the regulations only apply to agricultural users and not, for example, to one of the largest sprayers of pesticides-- the County of Maui itself--as well as golf course maintenance, pest control firms and a whole laundry list of other intensive users of chemical products.
The occasion brought out farmers from every sector and scale of local agriculture, ranging from small family operators to large ranchers, pineapple, sugarcane and seed operations on Maui and Molokai.
Testimony two-to-one against
The testimony ran about three-to-one against adoption of Cochran's legislation. Both on Maui and Molokai, almost every speaker who opposed the legislation said it would threaten their ability to continue to earn a living through farming, and put them at a competitive disadvantage.
Warren Watanabe, executive director of the Maui County Farm Bureau, presented a petition with 2,568 names in opposition to the proposed legislation.
David Stoltzfus, a Monsanto operations employee here, said, "We are freely providing pesticide information to the County of Maui" under the terms of a recent voluntary agreement. He did not say what had been reported or where and when it will be available to the public.
Those in favor a minority at hearing
Though anti-GMO events have brought out large crowds numbering in the thousands in recent months, those who favored the proposed measure were clearly in the minority at this hearing.
Those who endorsed it cited the unknown, long-term effects of agricultural chemicals and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Karen Chun, who supported the measure, also brought a petition that contained the signatures of 686 Maui County residents favoring disclosure of GMOs and pesticide use. According to Chun, she had gathered at total of over 1,428 names online, but not all were from Maui.
Those testifying in favor of new or stricter regulations stressed the rights of citizens to know what was being used in close proximity to their daily lives, and how it might affect their health. They asked to be truthfully informed on what was being sprayed, how much, how often the chemicals were applied and what, specifically, were the possible adverse effects, particularly to the young, pregnant, sick and elderly.
Several described increases in birth defects, autism, hyperactivity, impaired cognitive function, cancers and allergies here. Some who testified asserted these conditions resulted from pesticide use.
There were a number of comments on a general "slacker attitude" on the part of public officials in the state Department of Agriculture and the state Department of Health (DOH) to do even the minimum amount of monitoring. Inspections, they alleged, were "complaint- driven," and absent complaints, inspections were few and far between.
On both Maui and Molokai, supporters of stricter regulation reminded the council that chemistry long-banned on the Mainland and other parts of the world remained in use in Hawai'i for many years after they had ceased to be allowed in other places, and in some cases, are still in use in Maui County.
What did come out in the testimony was a report that the state DOH has just one half-time position for local pesticide instruction and training. It was also reported that a June complaint that resulted in taking of samples for pesticide toxicity did not get a report from the state until November. When that report was received, it documented traces of various chemicals in the home, but the meaning and level of possible harm they might cause were not stated on the report.
Molokai testimony plentiful
Indeed, the Molokai testimony was plentiful and had about the same three-to-one split against the legislation. The quality of the audio from Molokai was not good. It was difficult hear the names and affiliations of the speakers. Many said they worked for Mycogen Seeds, a Dow Agrosciences affiliate on Molokai.
On Molokai, several who supported new rules pointed to the high and chronic rate of birth defects and other health related health conditions on the Friendly Isle.
Amended version coming next
Supporters of the measure and Cochran herself acknowledged that they are considering amendments in response to the testimony. A statement released by her office said, "She plans to submit a new amended version reflecting/addressing concerns that were brought up in testimony." It was the chair's decision to hear the original proposal first to gauge initial public sentiment.
Hokama chaired the meeting in a manner that was respectful, yet firm. He laid down ground rules for civil discourse and decorum. He was assisted by Don Couch, the vice chair of the committee, who acted as chair when Hokama was called away on other business. All of the members of the council were present except Bob Carroll and Mike Victorino, who were excused. Gladys Baisa was absent during the afternoon session.
The hearing began at 9 a.m. and ran until after 4 p.m. A second round of testimony was scheduled for Friday, Jan. 31.
The Maui News reported that state Health Department Maui District Health Officer Dr. Lorrin Pang, who was testifying on his own behalf, Molokai community activist Molokai Walter Ritte and Lucienne de Naie of Sierra Club Maui all voiced support for the bill on Friday. In all, 80 testifiers addressed the PIA committee on Friday in Council Chambers. Of the 80 speakers, 29 testified in person on Maui and 51 testified via phone from Molokai.
Hokama mentioned the possibility that the council would travel to Molokai to take testimony there in person, but no date has yet been set.
Issue high profile throughout the state
The pending legislation on Maui is just part of broader awareness of the pesticide and GMO issue statewide. Locally, signatures are being gathered to put a GMO moratorium on the November ballot using the initiative process. No initiative drive has yet been successful on Maui, though the election regulations allow it.
At the state level, House Bill 2506 and Senate Bill 3058 have been introduced this session that would take the ability to regulate these matters out of county jurisdiction.
Both these bills promise to be hot topics in the legislature and on all islands, but especially Maui, Molokai, Kaua'i and Hawai'i Island.