Gov. Neil Abercrombie is trying to cool the heated debate over GMOs and pesticides on Kauai by promising that the state will increase its oversight of pesticide use.
Yet the governor’s sudden entry into the escalating fight over biotech, which comes just as the Kauai County Council is considering tough restrictions on pesticides, has angered GMO opponents more than it has pacified them.
Biotech companies applauded Abercrombie's proposal, which came in a press release Monday. The governor's statement said that agriculture companies have agreed to comply with new health and safety regulations.
But supporters of the far-reaching bill before the Kauai County Council say the governor is trying to derail the county effort.
In the press release, Abercrombie said he is working with Kauai legislators on state measures that include guidelines for disclosing the total amount of restricted pesticides used on Kauai and establishing setbacks for spraying pesticides near schools and hospitals. The setbacks will be determined by the state Department of Agriculture and the affected companies, according to Louise Kim McCoy, Abercrombie's director of communications.
Biotech companies that develop genetically engineered products like seed corn account for most of the restricted pesticide use on Kauai.
The Kauai County Council has been holding hearings on Bill 2491 which would require extensive studies to determine whether GMO crops and related pesticide use are harmful to human health and the environment. The bill also requires that biotech companies disclose what pesticides they are spraying, where they are spraying and in what quantities. The measure would also set up buffer zones between biotech fields and public spaces, including schools, hospitals, roads and waterways.
Supporters of the bill say the governor’s efforts are too little too late, and could weaken support for the county measure.
“There have been serious health and environmental concerns in regards to the pesticide-seed industry for years,” Andrea Brower, a Kauai GMO activist, said in a statement. “When the county is finally making progress on beginning to address the issue, the sudden move by the governor for ‘voluntary action’ is weak at best, and a derailment at worse.”
Critics, including some members of the Kauai council, have complained that the state isn’t doing enough to monitor pesticide use and ensure that public health is protected. The county has to pick up the slack, a costly prospect, they say.
Council member Gary Hooser, who co-introduced Bill 2491, said Abercrombie's intervention could affect the council's vote on the bill, which is scheduled for committee action on Friday.
“It could be used by some as an excuse to defer the decision and wait and see what the state does,” he said in a text message. “Truthfully I have no confidence in the legislature or the state administration doing anything of significance that will have any near term tangible impacts on the activities and practices of these large agrochemical companies in our community.”
McCoy didn't respond to concerns that the governor's involvement could undermine momentum for Bill 2491. She also didn’t respond directly to a question about whether the governor believed biotech companies should be required to disclose what pesticides they are spraying and where. (The governor’s new voluntary standards would only require disclosure of the aggregate amount that is sprayed.)
But she did say that the state is doing a good job of regulating pesticides and Abercrombie’s new standards would make this effort even better.
“The Hawaii Department of Agriculture (HDOA) Pesticide Branch has performed well in its federally mandated mission to regulate pesticide usage in the State of Hawaii including the County of Kauai,” she said by email. “Gov. Abercrombie's announced standards and guidelines for pesticide use will only strengthen the department's pesticide regulatory mission on Kauai and throughout the state.”
Agribusiness interests support Abercrombie's new pesticide measures. The Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, a trade organization representing biotech companies, said in a statement issued soon after the governor's press release hit reporters' inboxes on Monday that it applauds "the state for stepping in and recognizing its role in regulating pesticides in Hawaii."
"Pesticides have played a major role in making our lives safer and in protecting our economic well being," Alicia Maluafiti, executive director of the group, said in the statement. "American farmers, including those on Kauai, are producing more food and fiber on less land than ever in history and pesticides are partly responsible."
Will the State Toughen Regulations?
The Legislature addressed pesticide issues in House Bill 673, which was signed into law earlier this year by Abercrombie as Act 105.
The law requires the Department of Agriculture to publish on its website sales records for restricted pesticides. But the measure doesn’t require companies to disclose what they are spraying and where.
Sen. Mike Gabbard, chair of the energy and environment committee, called the measure “extremely watered down.”
He said he pushed for a more robust reporting system that also encompassed non-restricted pesticides.
Kauai Rep. Dee Morikawa, who introduced the bill, said Tuesday that the county should give the state a chance to increase pesticide reporting on its own, noting that it was a significant leap for the Legislature to pass the measure after a decade of failed attempts. She said that the recent support from Abercrombie could increase reporting standards.
But the agriculture department is struggling with the law as it is and has yet to post the sales records because of concerns that confidential business information will be revealed. The department is currently working with the state Office of Information Practices to determine what information might be deemed confidential, according to Avis Onaga, environmental health specialist in the department's pesticides branch.
The department already has the authority to implement its own rules that require pesticide users to disclose what they are spraying and where. In a letter to Abercrombie last month, Jay Furfaro, chair of the Kauai County Council, asked Abercrombie to make this happen.
McCoy said the governor’s office is considering that approach. Abercrombie also plans to work with the Legislature this session to restore funding and positions within the agriculture department to assist with pesticide regulation, she said.