On Saturday, the small island of Kaua’i prevailed over the world’s largest pesticide and genetically engineered (GE) seed corporations.
In the face of fierce industry opposition and political drama — including a mayoral veto, secret text messages, intimidation from the State and switched votes — the people demanding better protection from pesticides prevailed. The County Council voted once to pass Bill 2491, and then — to overide the mayor's veto — they did it again. Kudos to all who made this victory possible!
As Civil Beat noted, concerns about industrial agriculture have heated up on the island in the past few months. Front yards have been filled with signs like “Malama Aina” (“Care for the Land”), council chambers were filled with supporters who had camped out the night before, and one march in support of Bill 2491 drew upwards of 4,000 supporters — including a wide range of Pass the Bill coalition members, physicians, farmers and mothers among them.
And when I was on the island to testify in front of the Kaua'i County Council, I heard three separate discussions about pesticides and GMO test fields in a coffee shop one morning. People were focused and passionate about the issue, keen to protect their children and communities from hazardous pesticides.
Fern Rosenstiel, one of the leaders of Ohana ‘O Kaua’i and the Pass the Bill coalition summed it up this way:
"It's remarkable how hard we've had to fight simply for our right to know what pesticides are being sprayed in massive amounts right next to homes and schools. We've met every possible obstacle, but we've been persistent and stayed grounded in our values of protecting our people and land."
The hard-fought, final victory came on Saturday when the council voted 5-2 to over-ride the mayor's veto. The mayor had also hired one of councilmembers to work in his office — a swing voting member — but that vacancy was filled in the eleventh hour, just before the final vote.
Clarifying his position in support of Bill 2491, newly appointed councilmember Mason Chock said, "If I’ve been given the opportunity to make a difference in the health of a child’s life, I’m going to take it."
GE on the island
Kaua’i has become a global epicenter of GE seed testing and production, and these seeds are grown with heavy doses of pesticides. In fact, on-island industrial production — led by some of the world's largest GE and pesticide corporations like BASF, Bayer, Dupont-Pioneer and Syngenta — has resulted in application of an estimated 18 tons of hazardous pesticides over the past few years.
GE seeds are designed to drive up the use of pesticides.
While alarming, this trend is no accident. As my colleague Dr. Marcia Ishii-Eiteman has noted before, the industry's “dirty little secret” is that GE seeds are designed to drive up the use of pesticides — particularly those produced and patented by the very same companies. GE crops are designed to drive up marketshare for pesticide corporations.
To disrupt this disturbing trend on the island, the Kaua'i County Council passed Bill 2491 to better protect children from pesticide drift and mandate corporations to disclose pesticide use information, so families can make informed choices and protect themselves.
Misinformation & intimidation
The influence of pesticide and GE seed corporations has been evident throughout this battle. At a Kauai’i County Council hearing I attended in August, both Syngenta and Dupont-Pioneer made it clear that they planned to sue the County, regardless of the text of the bill.
Hector Valenzuela, a professor and crop specialist at the University of Hawai'i – Manoa, noted the huge conflicts of interests between corporate “hired guns” and academics on the industry payroll across the islands:
"Over the past year in Hawai'i, County Council bills were drafted in response to community concerns about the planting of experimental genetically modified (GM) crops and their inherent pesticide use around the islands. In response, the agrochemical industry brought a number of "hired guns" from out-of-state to paint a rosier picture of the GMO Industry. Local academics also joined the bandwagon claiming a consensus about the safety of pesticides and GM crops on the islands."
Industry influence has also permeated the highest levels of Hawai'i government. The day before what was originally set to be the final vote on the bill, Governor Neil Abercrombie — whose campaign has received thousands of dollars from pesticide and GE corporations — announced a new voluntary state program for pesticide use disclosure supported by the very same corporations. But it was too little, too late.
The Kauai’i Council stood their ground. And in spite of initially vetoing the bill, the mayor has now agreed to work with the Council to implement the law.
The victory in Kauai’i is spurring action on other Hawaiian islands and supporting efforts on the mainland as well. Councilmember Gary Hooser, an author of Bill 2491, said:
“This re-instills people’s faith that we can win against big corporations. I know other people are watching us and that this message is being sent all over [the world]. It’s a good day on Kauai, it’s a good for grassroots democracy.”
Many will be watching closely as the Big Island continues the fight today, with a bill that would prohibit the production of GE crops. And while GMO seeds haven’t been as widely introduced on that island, concerned residents there aren’t waiting around.
Let’s celebrate Kauai's victory, and keep working for the next one. Together, we are pushing back against global pesticide giants and towards a fair, green and prosperous food system.
Take action » Join me in saying thanks to the dedicated people of Kaua’i, including Hawai'i SEED, Ohana ‘O Kaua'i and the rest of the Pass the Bill coalition who stood up to powerful pesticide corporations.