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Opponents, supporters pack hearing on pesticide use, GMOs

By Rosemarie Bernardo

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 01:26 a.m. HST, Aug 01, 2013


LIHUE » The Kauai Veterans Center filled to its  625-seat capacity this afternoon as Garden Isle residents sound off on both sides of a controversial proposed county ordinance regulating pesticide use and farming genetically engineered crops.

More people gathered outside the center after the 1:30 p.m. public hearing got started. Those in support of agribusinesses wore light-blue T-shirts while supporters of Bill 2491 were in red T-shirts.

If passed into law, the ordinance would require mandatory disclosures about pesticide use and the presence of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Among other regulations: the ordinance would ban open-air testing of experimental pesticides and GMOs, and create of a pesticide-free 500-foot buffer zone around schools, hospitals and other sensitive areas, such as public roads, streams and shorelines.

The proposed Kauai County ordinance applies only to large users of restricted-use pesticides — agricultural operations purchasing or using more than five pounds or 15 gallons of restricted-use pesticides, or any amount of experimental pesticides, annually.

Consequently, its scope almost entirely limits the potentially affected group to five companies: Syngenta, Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., BASF Corp. and Dow AgroSciences as well as Kauai Coffee, the largest coffee grower in Hawaii.

The bill's author, Kauai County Council member Gary Hooser, maintains that at its center is the community’s right to know what pesticides are being used in large quantities and what experimental pesticides and genetically modified crops are present on Kauai. 

The regulations are needed, Hooser said, because the intensity of restricted-use pesticides spraying on Kauai exceeds that of any other county in the state.

While supporters say the proposed county ordinance is needed to safeguard public health and the island’s environment, opponents point to existing federal laws and contend that regulations tied to the bill would significantly hamstring agribusiness and farming industries.

Before the doors opened at 12:30 p.m., both supporters and opponents gathered on the center's grounds to display signs and banners. Opponents also displayed banners in support farms. Those first in the wait line for a seat in the center started arriving at about 7 a.m. 

Among those waiting for hearing at midday was Poipu resident Janet Flippert, who was wearing a red T-shirt with a black “X” painted over the letters “GMO.” Flippert said, “The big five biotech groups are ... poisoning our land.” She added, “They have to stop.”

Laurie Yoshida, spokeswoman of Pioneer Hi-Bred International, countered such sentiment by asserting that the Iowa-based company follows federal regulations pertaining to pesticide use.

There is no law in place on Kauai that requires agriculture-centric companies to disclose to the public amounts of chemicals used daily. However, large agribusiness operations are monitored by three federal agencies: the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration.

The USDA decides whether companies get permits for field tests, the EPA oversees pesticide use, and the FDA is in charge of the safety of genetically modified crops.

Syngenta's spokesman, Mark Phillipson, has said that the seed-production company, which leases about 3,500 acres of state and private land on Kauai, only uses EPA-approved products, and that the company does not conduct experimental pesticide product testing.  

Even so, some supporters of the bill contend that seed companies operating on Kauai lack adequate oversight and there's too much secrecy tied to growing genetically engineered crops. 

In days leading up to the hearing, sign-waving demonstrations were held by opponents who say the public has been misinformed about modern agriculture. The bill's backers created an online petition that has so far generated some 30,000 signatures. 

Wednesday's public testimony is being heard before the county’s Agricultural and Environmental Services Committee chaired by Hooser who co-introduced the proposed ordinance with council member Tim Bynum. 

The bill calls for the following:

>>  Mandatory disclosures detailing pesticide use and the presence of GMOs.

>>  A 500-foot buffer zone around schools, hospitals and other sensitive areas, such as public roads, streams and shorelines.

>> A ban on open-air testing of experimental pesticides and experimental GMOs. Experimental testing must be conducted in an enclosed environment, such as a laboratory or contained greenhouse.

>> A moratorium on new GMO operations pending results of an environmental impact statement — prepared by Kauai County — and development of a permitting system. This does not apply to existing operations, but it does pertain to expansion during the moratorium period.

>> Implementation of a county permitting process for commercial farms that grow GMOs. Permits will require measures to prevent cross-pollination with non-genetically modified crops, limit pesticide-laden dust, and require periodic testing of soil, dust, water, air and area residents. The county will set penalties for violators.

>> Costs tied to the law will be paid for via permitting fees assessed on those companies being regulated and by way or property tax directly connected to their operations.






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