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On the Front Lines of Hawaii’s GMO War, Part Two

Bill 2491 will take effect in nine months, but the battle over GMO farming and pesticides in Kauai – and the rest of Hawaii – is far from over.

Biotech agricultural workers rally outside the Kauai County Courthouse on November 14 as the county council considers overriding the mayor's veto of Bill 2491. (Photo: Mike Ludwig / Truthout)

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This is the second and final installment in an in-depth series on resistance to pesticides and GMO farming on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. To read Part One, click here.

Michael is one of dozens of workers and their allies wearing gray shirts and gathered on November 14 outside of the county building on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. He says he is a “sprayer” for Syngenta, one of the four international biotech and agrichemical companies that develop and produce hybrid and genetically engineered crop seeds on the island. He doesn’t want to share his last name, but he will share his views on the ensuing drama over Bill 2491, a piece of local legislation that has become the most divisive controversy that the Garden Island’s 67,000 residents have seen in years.

“They’re telling us we are poisoning people, and I don’t think we are poisoning anybody,” Michael says.

Michael and his coworkers are here to tell the Kauai County Council not to override Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho’s recent veto of Bill 2491, which the council passed by a 6-1 vote.

The bill specifically targets Syngenta, Dow Agrichemical, Dupont-Pioneer and BASF with new pesticide regulations requiring they publicly disclose the details of pesticide sprays, observe buffer zones around schools and hospitals, and comply with an environmental impact study. The Kauai Coffee Company, which operates a large farm on the island, is included in the bill, but other agricultural operations are exempt.

The five companies are not the only firms using pesticides on Kauai, but they do use 98 percent of the “restricted use” pesticides sprayed on the island. Federal law demands these chemicals only be applied by, or under the supervision of, workers, who, like Michael, have certified training. The seeds produced and developed at the biotech test farms are not considered food products, and some are genetically engineered to tolerate patented pesticide formulas; so the biotech firms can use more chemicals on their experimental development plots than traditional farms. According to the slim amount of data available in state records, the biotech companies purchased a combined total of 5,447 pounds and 4,324 gallons of 22 different restricted-use pesticides to use on the island in 2012 alone.

Some of these restricted-use pesticides, such as atrazine and paraquat, have been linked to health problems. Atrazine is banned in Europe but is the most popular herbicide in the United States, and the Environmental Protection Agency is currently reevaluating the chemical’s carcinogenic potential in response to concerns from independent scientists. Others, such as permethrin, are toxic to fish and aquatic life.

On the west side of Kauai, where biotech seed testing and development plots operate near schools and residential neighborhoods, some residents fear that the large volumes of pesticides applied on biotech farms and development plots may be contributing to disease and hurting wildlife in rivers and the ocean. Local doctors and nurses have reported a spike in rare birth defects. Teachers at a west side middle school claim Syngenta’s pesticides drifted into their classrooms and made students sick on several occasions between 2006 and 2008, a charge Syngenta denies.

Forcing the biotech companies to disclose the details of their pesticide use, activists say, will help residents protect their children, doctors advise their patients and researchers determine if the chemicals actually pose a threat to public health and the environment.

The biotech companies, however, say that Bill 2491 unfairly singles out their businesses with costly regulations, and they rallied their workers against what they call an attack on jobs and farmers.

Michael looks across the police tape separating the bill’s opponents from its supporters. More residents from the west side have showed up to testify in support the bill than at past council meetings, but many of Bill 2491’s supporters live on other parts of the island where wealthy mainlanders retire in luxury homes and tourism, not agriculture, is the lifeblood of the economy. Some are not just concerned about pesticides, but are ideologically opposed to industrial agriculture and the biotech industry’s genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, all together. Michael wonders if targeting his employer with Bill 2491 is part of a “land grab” of Kauai’s working class west side. “You can’t have million dollar houses and shopping malls with working people around,” he says.

A Bill 2491 supporter talks with an agricultural worker opposed to the bill over a police partition set up to divide supporters from opponents at the county council meeting. The partition was later taken down due to concerns that the controversy was dividing the community. (Photo: Mike Ludwig / Truthout)A Bill 2491 supporter talks with an agricultural worker opposed to the bill over a police partition set up to divide supporters from opponents at the county council meeting. The partition was later taken down due to concerns that the controversy was dividing the community. (Photo: Mike Ludwig / Truthout)

GMO Ground Zero

Along with Monsanto, which operates on other islands, the world’s top producers of pesticides and GMO seeds have made a home in Hawaii, where three growing seasons support seed development and open-air GMO experiments. The five companies employ about 1,800 people across the state and have made Hawaii the world’s leading producer of seed corn, which accounts for 96 percent of the state’s $247 million biotech agriculture industry, according to the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, which represents the biotech companies. Virtually every GMO seed variety has spent some time in development on a Hawaiian island.

The biotech firms also brought to Hawaii the controversy that constantly swirls around them. GMO crops, and the chemical-laden industrial agriculture practices that are designed around them, are at the center of a global debate over the future of food. In September, thousands protested on Kauai in support of Bill 2491 and against GMOs, and last week the county council on the island of Hawaii passed a bill banning new GMO crop development on the Big Island.

On November 14, the lines are drawn once again on the lawn outside the Kauai county building, with seed farm workers one side of a police partition and groups of environmentalists, concerned residents and hardline anti-GMO activists on the other. The debate has gotten ugly and threatened to divide the tight-knit island. After he vetoed Bill 2491, Mayor Carvalho was reportedly called “birth-defects mayor” by his detractors and received threatening calls and emails. As the council considers overriding the veto, both sides are calling for “aloha and respect.”

The Drama Over Bill 2491

Sleeping in tents and on lawn chairs, activists spent the night in front of the county building to secure seats at the county council meeting. That evening, police were called to respond to an altercation that erupted after a local homeless man admitted to taking $200 in exchange for holding a spot outside the building for the anti-bill camp. The man would later testify before the council, saying he returned the cash and decided he would support Bill 2491 after learning about the controversy he had inadvertently gotten in the middle of for some extra money.

Tensions are also high inside the council meeting, where an emotional and uniquely Hawaiian political drama crescendos throughout the day. As they have in past meetings on Bill 2491, the council agrees to an extended public comment period, allowing more than 100 people to testify for three minutes in a marathon meeting that continues for hours.

Biotech employees and their friends say the bill has harshly divided the island community and put the county at risk of fighting lawsuits at the taxpayer’s expense. Biotech farm workers, they say, are sufficiently trained, and existing regulations ensure everyone’s safety. Anti-GMO activists go on about the alleged dangers of pesticides and GMO food. First responders and medical professionals say that mandatory disclosure of pesticide information would help them keep people healthy and safe. Tears are shed as one mother from the west side testifies with her young child in her arms. He was born with a rare heart defect, she says, and has already undergone open-heart surgery and may need a heart transplant.

Susan Tai Kaneko, a community outreach manager for Syngenta, calls on her religious faith in her testimony against the bill and tells the council that, “at the end of the day, I hope you hear His voice.” She then accuses Councilmen Gary Hooser, the main architect of Bill 2491, of harassing her coworkers outside the meeting. Hooser, a former state senator who had returned to the county council, denies harassing anyone and then asks Tai Kaneko if she knows anything about the homeless man who was paid $200 to save a seat for the biotech side. Tai Kaneko says she knows nothing.

As Bill 2491 opponents point out, Hooser is on the board of the Hawaii Organic Farming Association, which networks with sustainable agriculture and anti-GMO groups. What little is known about restricted-use pesticide applications on Kauai came from an information request that Hooser filed with the state, along with discovery from an ongoing lawsuit filed against Dupont-Pioneer by 150 west side residents. Hooser was frustrated to find that, of the 175 logs filed by state pesticide inspectors who visited biotech facilities on Kauai, 75 had been redacted due to “possible violations” and pending investigations. Hooser twice requested that state regulators provide information on the nature of the violations without disclosing the names of the companies so he could address public concerns, but the long-time elected official was denied.

For Bill 2491’s supporters on the county council, the legislation is about taking regulation into their own hands. The companies do not report information about their restricted-use pesticide applications to regulators unless one of the six state inspectors makes a request, and the only official at the Department of Agriculture in charge of reviewing pesticide inspection reports and following up on suspected violations is sitting on a backlog going back several years.

Hooser, however, says Bill 2491 is also about something deeper than simply regulating pesticides. It’s about the hundreds of people showing up to testify at council meetings and standing strong against the power of state government and multinational corporations. “This is grassroots democracy in action,” he told Truthout a few days before the meeting. “It’s really an inspiration.”

Aloha and Respect

The seven-member council only has six at the moment because one member left her seat to work for the mayor’s office in a move that raised suspicions among pro-bill activists. The council needs a supermajority of five votes to override the mayor’s veto and originally passed the bill with six, but Ross Kagawa, who originally voted for the bill, has decided to side with the mayor and break the supermajority. He makes his announcement and gasps are heard across the room, but the Bill 2491 saga is not over yet.

Kagawa holds up a copy of a press release from the governor’s office. Dupont-Pioneer and other biotech firms have threatened to challenge the bill with costly lawsuits, and just two days before the scheduled override vote, Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie gave the Kauai council a chance to kill the bill while letting the state address the council’s regulatory concerns, at least on a volunteer basis. Abercrombie announced a voluntary regulation program that would establish a 100-foot pesticide spray buffer zones around schools, hospitals and residential areas. Under the program, residents and schools can also register with the biotech companies to receive pre-spray notices and post-spray reports provided on a voluntary basis. An in-depth environmental impact review, which is required under Bill 2491, is not included.

“The whole thing is a goodwill gesture,” said Thomas Matsuda, head of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s pesticide division. The biotech companies, he told Truthout, made a verbal agreement to follow the voluntary rules. “. . . If they want to report, they will do it.”

Hooser rails against Abercrombie’s voluntary program. “The governor and the Department of Agriculture insult us,” he says in his comments to the council. “They insult me, they insult our community. Did they bother to meet with us? No. They met in Honolulu with the agrichemical companies.”

Kagawa, however, is unconvinced. He tells the council that they should drop the controversial bill and work with the state. “While [Bill 2491] is tied up in court, how will our situation get any better?” Kagawa says.

Bill 2491 finally seems to be dead in the water, but Hooser has one more ace up his sleeve. Despite all the grassroots democracy displaying itself with homemade signs outside the county building, the battle over Bill 2491 has seen some controversial political maneuvers, with Abercrombie’s well-timed announcement only being the latest. Now it’s Hooser’s turn, and he throws a perfect Hail Mary pass.

Hooser proposes that the council recess the override vote, and, in the meantime, choose a new councilmember to replace the one that took off for the mayor’s office. After some backdoor deliberations, Council Chair Jay Furfaro calls a vote, and Hooser’s wish is granted with a simple majority of 4-2. On November 15, the council will select Mason Chock as its seventh member, and on November 16, the council will override the mayor’s veto of Bill 2491 with a vote of 5-2.

Bill 2491 will take effect in nine months, but the battle over GMO farming and pesticides in Kauai – and the rest of Hawaii – is far from over. The biotech companies, which have already tried to push legislation at the state level that would undermine a county’s ability to regulate agriculture, are expected to either take Kauai County to court or lobby state legislators to pass a law to preempt local regulation.

Anti-GMO activists, on the other hand, will continue to oppose the biotech industry’s very presence on every Hawaiian island. But for the residents of Kauai’s west side, where the GMO seed fields replaced sugar cane plantations, and mothers worry for the health of their land and their keiki (children), the road ahead is less of a battle and more of a exercise in respect.

“People have gotten sick, and we would like to make sure that it’s not because of them [the companies],” west side resident Kaulana Poe told the council before its final vote on Bill 2491. “And that is just real simple – showing aloha and respect for us.”

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