Three state Senate committees approved a bill Thursday that would impose stricter regulations on Hawaii’s seed industry, including buffer zones for spraying certain pesticides around schools, watersheds, hospitals and other sensitive areas.
The hearing was only the first step in a long process to becoming law, but Gov. David Ige said Thursday that he supports the idea of creating buffer zones for pesticide spraying.
“I do believe that the state has an obligation to regulate pesticides,” Ige said. “I think the state needs to be more proactive. I think the state has an obligation to ensure the public health.”
The issue is a major topic of debate this legislative session following years of grassroots activism protesting large seed companies like Monsanto that grow genetically engineered crops year-round in Hawaii. Three counties recently passed bills cracking down on the seed industry, but a federal court ruled in two cases last fall that it’s up to the state to regulate farming.
The governor said he has asked the director of the Department of Agriculture to identify state land that could be used as buffer zones around schools and medical facilities.
Ige said the state is also working hard to fill empty positions in the DOA’s Pesticide Branch, including jobs for inspectors. The agency has a huge backlog of inspection reports, in part due to understaffing.
“We are moving forward from the executive side in trying to be sensitive to concerns raised,” Ige said.
As Ige spoke, more than 100 employees from seed companies such as Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer waited outside his office in a show of solidarity from the seed industry.
When Ige emerged from the press conference, the group presented the governor with a genetically engineered papaya from Kamiya Gold Farms in Kaneohe.
Bennette Misalucha of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, a trade group, said the seed industry brings its employees to the Capitol every year to remind policy-makers of the importance of agriculture and show them that the corporations are made up of people.
Misalucha said the group wasn’t at the State Capitol to lobby regarding particular bills.
“I think it’s just important for the legislators to understand and see the industry,” she said.
Hours later, a crowd gathered to testify on three pesticide-related bills before the Senate committees on health, agriculture and the environment.
Despite the governor’s stated support for buffer zones, the state’s Department of Agriculture Chair Scott Enright criticized Senate Bill 793, which would force agricultural companies that purchase large amounts of restricted-use pesticides to abide by buffer zones around schools and other sensitive areas.
“As written, the bill lacks a science-based assessment of the potential risks referred to and fails to show that the mandatory restrictions it would impose on a certain class of pesticide users is necessary or would achieve the bill’s intended purpose,” Enright wrote in his testimony.
SB 793 also calls for more disclosure about pesticide use. The measure is similar to a bill that Kauai County passed two years ago but was struck down by a federal court. By Thursday afternoon, the proposal had attracted 440 pages of written testimony.
Near the end of the three-hour hearing, lawmakers grilled Enright, along with Thomas Matsuda of the Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Branch.
Senate Health Committee Chairman Josh Green pressed Enright on whether the department needs more manpower and regulations to ensure large agricultural companies are using pesticides safely.
Currently, there is only one pesticide inspector on Kauai, despite persistent claims from many residents that pesticide drift is causing health problems.
“We are relying on the training of the certified applicators,” Enright replied. “We hold them to a higher standard.”
Enright also noted that the department’s budget was cut by about 40 percent during the last economic downturn. The agency is in the process of filling over 100 positions, including two more pesticide inspectors on Kauai.
The Senate committees ended up passing SB 793 with amendments, but Sens. Gil Riviere and Glenn Wakai voted with reservations.
Riviere said he was concerned about the proposal’s selective focus on the seed industry, and Wakai said that he worried the state would get sued if the measure passed.
Supporters of SB 793 included representatives of Planned Parenthood of Hawaii; the early childhood education group Good Beginnings Alliance; the Hawaii chapter of the national activist group Center for Food Safety; the Hawaii chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Hawaii branch of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Opponents included Alexander & Baldwin, a large landowner that leases land to seed companies; Hawaii Farmers and Ranchers United; Hawaii Crop Improvement Association; CropLife America and companies including Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences and DuPont Pioneer.
Numerous residents from Oahu, Kauai, Maui and the Big Island submitted identical letters supporting the bill and calling on lawmakers to hold the seed industry accountable.
The committees also approved Senate Bill 1037, which seeks to create a pesticide disclosure program under the Department of Health.
Green recommended that senators defer Senate Bill 797, which was very similar to SB 793.
SB 793 and SB 1037 now go to the Senate Ways and Means Committee. SB 793 will also need to be heard by the Consumer Protection Committee led by Sen. Rosalyn Baker, who has previously been opposed to bills aimed at regulating the seed industry.