Editor’s Note: Bill 2491 is scheduled for a vote on Friday before a Kauai County Council committee. Read latest Civil Beat story here.

Few issues have roiled up the community in the recent past, as much as pesticide Bill 2491, currently under consideration by the Kauai County Council. The bill has received overwhelming support across broad segments of the population, including by local pediatricians, teachers, cultural practitioners, and other members of the health community.

Bill 2491 was introduced in response to community concerns about the intensive use of pesticides used for the production of genetically modified (GM) seed crops on the Garden Isle.

Prior to its introduction, the text of Bill 2491 was reviewed by environmental, legislative, and legal experts. The vetting process determined that the different aspects of the bill are well within the jurisdiction of the County Council, and that it has considerable precedents, with similar legislation passed by municipalities and counties around the country.

Key items of the bill, directed at agricultural operations that use a relatively large amount of pesticides, include Restricted Pesticide use disclosures; the use of buffer-zones between pesticide applications and sensitive-areas such as schools and hospitals; and it calls for an Environmental Impact Statement as a prerequisite for the further expansion of the GM Seed industry in Kauai.

To understand the extent of dust “escapes” and pesticide drift around experimental GM seed operations it is necessary to understand the unique nature of their operations, as compared to the typical family farm.

Unlike sugarcane, pineapple, orchards, and vegetable operations, the GM fields remain fallow during most of the year. The term fallow means that the soil is bare, and exposed to the elements, whether it be rainfall, farm machinery, or strong winds. In fallow fields, the risk of soil erosion and contamination increases if the fields are in a slope, and uphill of sensitive aquatic habitats, as are many of the GM seed fields in the state.

Thus, the proportion of lands that remain fallow or bare, in experimental GM seed operations is considerably greater than for typical farms. For instance, while the GM Seed companies own or lease over 12,000 acres of land in Kauai alone, only about 1,600 acres are harvested from those lands. This means that the GM seed industry is farming less than 15 percent of their land on Kauai, and perhaps only 5 percent to 10 percent of the total acreage, at any one time. This means that a large portion of the land owned or leased by the seed companies remains fallow or is unused, requiring some type of weed management, such as the use of herbicides, or cultivation. Frequent cultivation, of course, disturbs the soil, resulting in a loss of tilth and organic matter content, making the soil more vulnerable to runoff or wind erosion.

Adding to the concern of dust escapes and soil erosion, as indicated earlier, is the large number and volume of pesticides used by the GM seed industry. Apparently over 90 different pesticide formulations are applied by the GM seed industry on Kauai. Pesticides are applied on over 250 days out of the year, with perhaps 10 to 40 applications per day, on average. Because seed crops are considered to be a non-food item, seed growers are allowed to use more pesticides, and to use them more extensively, than they would be allowed to use, for the production of edible crops. This may partly explain why the GM seed industry uses over 90 percent of the 22 “Restricted Use Pesticides” that are used on farms in Kauai.

Considering that more than 90 percent of the pesticides that are applied in GM fields may reach NON-target areas, such as on the air, land, and water, it is reasonable to assume that a large level of contamination may occur. It is also reasonable to assume that soil runoff, erosion, or dust, may carry some level of pesticide contamination.

After 15 years of complaints about excessive dust, respiratory, and other health problems in the community, the seed companies have been unwilling to disclose information about the nature of the experimental crops that are grown, nor about the types and amounts of pesticides that are applied in proximity to rural communities. The scientific literature does indicate that pesticide applicators, field workers, and their families are at a higher risk from the chronic, long-term exposure to pesticide cocktails.

Interestingly, key items of Bill 2491 are in line with recommendations recently made by the American Academy of Pediatrics, calling for the “right to know” and also about the establishment of buffer zones, needed to protect children from pesticide exposure.

About the author: Hector Valenzuela is a Professor and Crop Specialist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. He has graduate degrees in crop production from the University of Florida and Washington State University. A supporter of small family farms and of organic and ecological-based farming systems, Dr. Valenzuela has raised questions about the safety and science of crop biotechnology.

This commentary first appeared on HuffPost Hawaii.

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