Amid the latest escalations in the battle over genetically modified crops and biotech in Hawaii, Mark Phillipson, president of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, suggested that passions simply can’t get much more “stoked” up.

His comment came after a colleague at the association — which represents Syngenta, Dow AgroScience, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, BASF and Monsanto — dished out allegations of discrimination and de facto censorship that is preventing the major biotech industries from getting a fair hearing on a contentious bill that could restrict their seed operations on the Garden Isle.

The biotech trade group is accusing Kauai County Councilman Gary Hooser and Kauai’s local community television station of discrimination and shutting it out of public hearings on the legislation.

The accusations came in a pair of letters. Alicia Maluafiti, executive director of the association, sent one to Hooser on Tuesday, accusing him of not giving Kauai’s seed companies proper notice to prepare expert testimony for an Aug. 5 hearing. She sent another letter the same day to J Robertson, the managing director of Hoike: Kauai Community Television, accusing his station of essentially censoring footage of pro-biotech testimony.

Hooser, who is the chair of the county council’s Economic Development Committee, proposed Bill 2491, which forbids the seed companies from expanding its crop testing until an extensive environmental assessment is conducted on the potential health and environmental dangers from their farming operations. The bill also requires biotech companies to disclose what pesticides they are spraying, where, and in what quantity. (Earlier this year, representatives of Syngenta told Civil Beat that disclosing their pesticide use would amount to giving up trade secrets.)

Hooser dismissed the association’s executive director’s accusations as “crazy.”

“I don’t know if Alicia had too much coffee today or not,” he said, adding: “I’m serious, it’s over the top.”

Hooser accused the biotech trade group of inciting passions that have at times turned ugly. “Now we are settling down to having a civil conversation, addressing the issue, and Alicia and her group want to throw gas on the fire,” said Hooser. “I think it’s irresponsible.”

But Maluafiti angrily rejected the idea that she was keeping passions high. “For anyone to say that we are flaming anything is a flaming lie,” she said.

The Letters

One of Maluafiti’s letters argues that Hooser waited until the “eleventh hour” to tell the biotech companies that on August 5 the county council would be hearing testimony about pesticide use. As a result, she says, Hooser had time to rally his mainland experts, and the biotech companies didn’t have time to rally theirs. The only expert they were able to recruit in the short time frame was a molecular geneticist from the University of California, Riverside, according to the trade group — and he wasn’t their best defense.

“There was nothing in the notice about subsequent briefing of the committee by experts and no indication that the focus of the inquiry would be on the ostensible impacts of pesticides used by Kauai farmers,” Maluafiti wrote. “This type of obfuscation is reprehensible and has no place in the public hearing process.”

In an interview with Civil Beat, Maluafiti argued that Hooser was the “quintessential embedded lobbyist.” She went on to accuse him of using his position as a councilman to coordinate hearings and testimony with “only those that agree with him.”

“I’d say cry me a river,” Hooser retorted. “It is ludicrous that the seed companies say that they are not being treated fairly.”

He said that the meeting was publicized in accordance with the state’s Sunshine law and county rules. “I do my best to be evenhanded, impartial and steady, but there is no requirement to do that,” Hooser said. “There is no requirement that I call up both sides and get them to show up. It’s their responsibility to show up. It’s not my responsibility.”

Maluafiti said that the letter to the councilman could be followed up by legal and ethical complaints against Hooser. She also accused Hoike of being complicit in what she described as a subterfuge of the democratic process. The community television station, which was taping a public hearing on the bill on July 31, left out the pro-biotech testimony, according to her letter.

When the footage was posted on the station’s website, members of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association were “shocked” to find out that most of the people testifying against Hooser’s bill were left out. The trade group accuses Hoike employees of being openly against the biotech companies and says it has footage from a different videographer to prove it.

“We know from our experience and observations that members of the Hoike staff may be on the anti-biotech agriculture side of the issue,” according to the letter to Robertson. “On the night of the hearing, for example, members of the pro-Bill 2491 group were seen sitting with some of the Hoike crew members.”

Maluafiti called for an investigation. In an earlier draft of the letter to Robertson — which was mistakenly sent out by Becker Communications to media outlets including Civil Beat — Maluafiti goes so far as to call for the television channel to fire the people who taped the event.

But Robertson insists that the television station didn’t edit anything out.

He said he hadn’t read the letter from Maluafiti, but he did speak with Phillipson, who is also a Syngenta spokesman, earlier in the day. Robertson insisted that there was no dispute. “We are totally fine with the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association. There is no issue even to discuss,” he said.

Phillipson, in what appears to be a rift in the biotech trade group’s leadership, disagreed with Maluafiti. He said that while footage appears to be missing, he doesn’t think that the omission was “purposeful.”

The biotech trade group’s president also suggested that his group’s letters were never supposed to be sent to Hooser and Robertson, even though Maluafiti adamantly insisted that they were.

Regardless of the intent, they have added to the tensions over the broader issues.

Asked if he thought the letters would stoke the flames of the debate, Phillipson said, “I think it’s pretty stoked now, don’t you? I don’t know how much more stoking you could take.”

Kauai council members say that a representative of one of the biotech companies has threatened to sue the county if the bill passes.

“This issue is about the health and environment and the right to know the impact that this industry has on our community,” said Hooser. “They refused to tell us anything at all — nothing. They won’t tell us what they are spraying, they won’t tell us what they are growing. They are threatening to sue us if we pass the bill — they are going to sue us for the right to spray poisons next to schools.”

But Maluafiti accused supporters of Hooser’s bill of being mainland transplants who are unfamiliar with local agricultural practices. “It’s people who have moved to the island, bought their piece of paradise, and didn’t know (that) their one-acre million-dollar home was by agriculture,” she said, noting that farming comes with pesticide use, noise and smell.

A final vote on the bill is scheduled for September 9.

Read the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association’s letters to Gary Hooser and J Robertson below:

DISCUSSION: Why do you think that passions are so intense in the debate about biotech in Hawaii?*

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