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Kaua'i community presses for pesticide protections

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Paul Towers
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Yesterday, a new bill was introduced in Kaua'i to provide greater transparency and protections from hazardous pesticides being sprayed on the island's ubiquitous GE test fields. Concerned community members were present en masse at the Kaua'i County Council hearing, including a broad coalition of mothers, farmers and teachers who back the bill.

Global pesticidemakers also took yesterday’s hearing seriously, busing employees to testify against the bill. These corporations rely on Hawaii's agricultural land to test their new genetically engineered crops — and the pesticide products designed to be used with GE crops. As a result, local residents are routinely exposed to an array of hazardous pesticides, and the corporations won't disclose which chemicals they're using. People on Kaua'i are saying, "Enough!"

The scene at the hearing was tense and council chambers were beyond full, with over 1,000 people in attendance. Global pesticide and genetically engineered seed corporations bused in dozens of employees to attend the hearing three hours before the hearing started, with the threat that they would lose their jobs if the bill passes. Testimony continued long into the night.

Kaua’i mother Lorilani Keohokalole-Torio summed up the intent of the legislation:

Pesticide corporations are using Kaua’i as testing grounds for genetically engineered crops and pesticides. We have a right to know what’s being grown on the island and what harmful chemicals are being used in the process.  And when pesticides are sprayed, we need protections in place for children.

Concerns about pesticide use associated with genetically engineered crop production has been mounting across the islands. A handful of pesticide corporations — BASF, Dow, Pioneer/DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta (the “Big 6” minus Bayer) — have come from behind the curtain. These companies, collectively controlling much of the global seed and pesticide markets, have the perfect business plan; they develop and patent pesticide-resistant GE seeds, which then drive up sales of their pesticide products.

And many of the new GE crops industry develops are tested in the fields of Hawai'i. On Kaua'i alone, hundreds of experimental seeds and hazardous pesticides are tested.

For months now, industry has been running intensive public relations efforts, including full-page ads in local newspapers. Though this shouldn’t be any surprise, given recent revelations about Syngenta’s corporate bullying, their deceitful tactics are just more of the same out of the Big Tobacco playbook. And the rights of island residents are being eschewed.

Local action

Many years ago, pesticide corporations and their allies were successful in stripping away the rights of local governments to enact more health protective policies in most states. But Hawai'i is one of the few states that still protects local rights. And those have come into play.

Previously I shared updates about exciting efforts at the state level. But facing greater opposition there from the pesticide industry, communities have brought their efforts closer to home. And as local governments assert authority, corporations are claiming “unconstitutionality.” These same companies are making appearances in state legislatures across the country and aggressively fighting ballot measures in places like California and Washington that would limit or label genetically engineered crops, foods and related pesticides.  

PAN’s Kauai-based organizer, a part-time farm manager born and raised in Hawai'i, concluded her testimony yesterday long after the sun had set. She said:

You can imagine federal representatives on the mainland and State representatives on Oahu are difficult to get the attention of to take action on an issue for the little island of Kaua'i. So we turn to you, our local council women and men to carry the torch on issues that are critically important to the health and safety of our island.

Buffers, not rebuff

Studies show kids are particularly susceptible to health threats from pesticides, and too many kids on Kaua’i are exposed to drift from GE test fields in their homes or schools. And resulting health impacts can last a lifetime. As a result, two of the most important components in the bill are restrictions on open air testing and increased protection zones (or buffer zones) near places where children live, learn and play.

And these protections are sorely needed. In a University of Hawai'i study — commissioned by the County of Kaua’i and Hawai'i Department of Agriculture — researchers found pesticides in the air inside and outside schools in every sample taken at three different school sites over a two-year period. One of the pesticides most frequently detected was chlorpyrifos, a difficult-to-control chemical increasingly linked to impacts on children’s health and intelligence.

The Kaua'i County Council is scheduled to hold a voting hearing on the pesticide protection bill in late July. And a similar fight will heat up on the Big Island starting next week. Given aggressive fights in the U.S. and across the globe, Hawai'i will surely see a lot more to come.

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