The battle against genetically modified farming is heating up on Maui, where residents are pushing a citizens’ initiative to temporarily ban the use of such biotechnology.

While Hawaii doesn’t allow residents to bring statewide ballot initiatives, the Maui County Charter has a provision for county-level efforts.

Residents met Monday evening to kick off the initiative, which requires by April 10 at least 8,500 signatures, or about 7 percent of the adult population of the county.

The bill would impose a temporary moratorium on cultivating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) until the county conducts an environmental and health analysis of genetically engineered crops and pesticides funded by the biotech companies.

Monsanto, the leading global producer of vegetable and crop seeds, grows corn and soybeans on about 3,000 acres in Maui County, which consists of the islands of Maui, Molokai and Lanai. The company employs 370 residents on Maui and is the biggest employer on Molokai, where it has 130 workers.

The push to limit genetic engineering on Maui comes just months after Hawaii County banned genetically modified farming and Kauai County passed a law requiring more disclosure from biotech companies about genetic engineering and pesticide use. Biotech companies, led by Syngenta, have sued Kauai to overturn the requirement.

In the wake of the GMO fights on Kauai and the Big Island, Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa announced that Monsanto had signed a memorandum of understanding with the county to report some details about its use of pesticides.

Maui Councilwoman Elle Cochran also introduced a bill at the county council last December that mirrors Kauai’s law. The council’s Committee on Policy & Intergovernmental Affairs held hearings about the proposal in January but hasn’t moved the bill forward.

Mark Sheehan, one of five Maui residents who are on the petitioners’ committee for the ballot initiative, said he supports more disclosure but that it isn’t enough.

“I don’t want you to tell me what type of poison you’re putting in my coffee, I want you to stop doing that,” Sheehan said. “Five hundred feet of buffer zones? How about 500 miles?”

Carol Reimann, community and government affairs manager for Monsanto on Maui, said she hadn’t yet reviewed the ballot initiative, but that fears about genetically modified farming are misplaced and the moratorium would hurt the company’s operations.

“The concept of placing a moratorium on something until it is ‘proven’ safe is a slippery one. Does it imply we should also stop using automobiles, cell phones, peanuts, aspirin and many other common products until they are proven safe beyond a doubt?” Reimann said in an email.

Maui County spokesman Rod Antone said the mayor’s office couldn’t comment on the issue because it hadn’t yet had the opportunity to review the ballot initiative.

Monday’s kick-off event was sponsored by a local nonprofit called the SHAKA Movement, which started just a few months ago. The event will feature Don Huber, a controversial plant pathologist who is lauded by some as a GMO expert and criticized by others as promoting misinformation.

Sheehan said Huber’s trip to Hawaii was sponsored by Lori Grace, a California resident who owns property in Hawaii. The group decided to propose the ballot initiative, he said, after it conducted a poll that found that more than half of Maui County residents would be in favor of a temporary moratorium on genetically engineered farming until it can be proven safe.

The poll was conducted by Lake Research Partners, a Washington, D.C.-based company that has worked with the Center for Food Safety, a national organization that advocates against genetically modified food.

Supporters of the proposal may be optimistic about its chances for success, but they still face an uphill climb.

Maui County’s charter requires that at least 20 percent of voters who cast ballots in the last mayoral election sign the petition in order for it to get onto the ballot.

Josiah Nishita, Maui’s deputy county clerk, said as far as he knows, the initiative process has never been successful.

Brian Murphy, a Maui resident who runs a group called Maui County Citizens for Democracy in Action, tried and failed to get an initiative passed to legalize marijuana in 2005.

State Lawmakers Wrestle with GMO Issue

Maui’s initiative reflects the continuing debate about genetically modified farming at the state level.

A bill to require labels on genetically engineered food, Senate Bill 2521, passed the Senate judiciary and health committees but is still waiting to be heard by the committees on consumer protection and finance.

A similar bill to mandate GMO labeling, Senate Bill 2736, passed the Senate Health Committee last month but still needs to be heard by three more Senate committees.

Nearly 4,000 people have signed a petition in support of labeling genetically modified food in Hawaii. But biotech companies like Monsanto as well as groups representing Syngenta have staunchly opposed labeling, saying that it would stigmatize their products and drive up the cost of food.

Meanwhile, anti-GMO activists are worried about another measure, Senate Bill 2777, which would amend the state land use law to say that agricultural land shall be permitted “without further limitations or restrictions.” The bill is scheduled to be heard by three Senate committees on Thursday.

Howard Green, a lawyer who owns Green World Farms in central Oahu, said he wrote the measure and asked Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz to introduce it because county restrictions are preventing Green from broadening his retail business.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed Act 113 into law last year to allow farmers to expand their commercial operations, but Green said SB 2777 is necessary because county rules are still restricting his operations.

“It has nothing to do with GMOs,” Green said. “This is not a secret deal. This is just Howard Green helping Donovan Dela Cruz to put together a bill that makes the law he has (Act 113) effective.”

But some residents are concerned that the language of the bill will allow the state to preempt Kauai and the Big Island’s regulations on genetically modified farming.

Sens. Michelle Kidani, Malama Solomon and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Clarence Nishihara co-sponsored the bill along with Dela Cruz.

“It does seem like it’s part of an increasingly desperate strategy to try to protect the chemical companies,” said Sen. Russell Ruderman from the Big Island. “Lord knows what is going to happen in conference committee.”

Earlier this session, Nishihara tried and failed to push through a bill amending Hawaii’s Right to Farm Act to override county restrictions on genetically modified farming. After his effort failed, the senator said he wouldn’t try to revive his proposed amendment.

Proposed Ballot Initiative

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