It’s that time of year again in the Legislature.
In the session that’s just a couple of weeks old, 29 pesticide-related bills have been introduced, but many use stealth techniques to attack the cultivation of genetically engineered crops in addition to further restricting pesticide.
That’s one less than during the last session, though it’s not really progress. Some of the new ones have made it through at least one committee.
In their bill titles, many seek to ban one pesticide, in particular — chlorpyrifos — or require greater disclosure of pesticide use or creation of pesticide buffer zones.
But down toward the bottoms of many of these bills comes the language for which they are really intended. They seek back-door bans on GMO farming by creating requirements for growing crops indoors or requiring a “moratorium” transparently intended to be permanent. They seek to impose pesticide buffer zones that would remove thousands of acres of land from cultivation, without offering evidence to support the scale of such buffer zones.
One of them, Senate Bill 2874, starts out saying that “Hawaii has become a location of increasing commercial agriculture operations that utilize genetically engineered crops.” That’s true, as far as it goes, but it ignores two realities. One is that there is no body of legitimate scientific evidence that GMO crops are anything to be scared of. But more important, bill language in much of this legislation also seeks to rein in large-scale “commercial agricultural operations” of any kind which, ironically, Hawaii needs more of, not less.
Note to all legislators and, if necessary, Gov. David Ige: Before you vote in favor of or sign any of this legislation, make sure to read each bill thoroughly, all the way to the end and ask yourself if this all is really in the interests of Hawaii residents.
Many of the bills are fundamentally dishonest. They appear to address a specific pesticide, but they actually have a stealth purpose: to outlaw GMO agriculture, for which there is not, and has not been, any scientific justification.
Some of the bills seem — on first review — to focus on banning potentially dangerous chlorpyrifos, statewide. At first flush, it seems hard to argue against such a ban. Chlorpyrifos, used by people who are not highly trained, can be very dangerous. The argument here breaks down, however, when you consider that some unique conditions in Hawaii agriculture argue for much more restrictive state regulations instead of an outright ban.
Hawaii’s agriculture industry is a long way from the Mainland. Pesticide sales in the state lag many other places. As a result, some pesticides that could be used instead of chlorpyrifos are not available here because their manufacturers have chosen not to register them in Hawaii.
A farmer friend, who has a degree in entomology (the study of insects), described chlorpyrifos this way: “It’s the sledge hammer in your tool box. You don’t need to use it very often, but when you do need it, you need it.” She went on to explain that accomplishing the same elimination of pests that chlorpyrifos offers could involve use of two, or more, other pesticides, which together could be riskier than chlorpyrifos.
And let’s be clear. The overwhelming majority of cases of people being harmed by pesticides are linked to use in the home, not in commercial agriculture.
It’s true that Syngenta, a seed company that had operations on Kauai until last year, just settled a case involving 10 workers who were inadvertently exposed to chlorpyrifos. But as much as Syngenta screwed up by letting the workers return to a recently sprayed field too soon, the rest of the current regulations restricting chlorpyrifos — which require use of extensive personal protective equipment — saw to it that there were no medical consequences for the workers. Without question, Syngenta should have been sanctioned, and it was, but the workers were still protected.
All pesticide use relies on risk-benefit calculations. There is no pesticide that, in high enough concentrations, won’t harm you, and that includes those widely used in organic farming. But there is also no drug you will ever take — including aspirin — that doesn’t have the potential to harm, or even kill, you.
And let’s be honest about this. Our need to produce more of our own food in Hawaii is critical. It will require more agriculture of all types — GMO, conventional and organic — to bring us closer to food independence. Chemicals of one kind or another permit farming at the scale to accomplish this goal. That includes organic farms that rely on pesticides.
But the bills in question do far more damage. Several, including Senate Bill 2439, lay the groundwork for anyone to sue any farmer at any time if the complainant contends the farm is using pesticides inappropriately or growing GMO crops. It would create a nightmare for all farmers, who would have to prepare to defend themselves against an infinite number of frivolous court actions. Legal fees, alone, could bankrupt many.
That bill, and others, also give individual counties the authority to regulate GMOs and pesticides. You will recognize that one. It was a key provision of Bill 2491 here on Kauai, which caused the ordinance to be invalidated because courts found that counties lack that power.
The argument against it is twofold. First, no Hawaii county has the money or expertise to implement and maintain such a regulatory program. That is especially true on Kauai, where we can’t even put enough police officers and firefighters on the job, keep the grass mowed in the parks, get the potholes out of the roads or replace bridges in danger of collapse.
We do not have the ability to recreate a pesticide/GMO bureaucracy. Better would be for counties to redouble their efforts to get the state and the federal government to enforce existing regulations more consistently and aggressively.
Second, having four different regulatory schemes in the state would make it hopelessly confusing for farmers. And local rules could be as nonsensical as one in Hawaii County — since killed — that banned even growing rainbow papayas, a GMO fruit widely credited with saving Hawaii’s papaya industry. The last time around on this, counties did not display any deep understanding of how intelligent pesticide and GMO regulation can be accomplished.
The anti-GMO forces have not given up and those who advocate for illogical additional regulation of pesticide use are part of that movement. Never mind that what documentation there is concludes that exposure in the home or use in gardens and yards is where the real risk has been for decades.
The Legislature would do well to recognize that this has gone far enough. Hawaii has enough issues about which intelligent legislation is critically important. Continuing to tilt at the GMO windmill serves no purpose. These bills all go in the wrong direction.