A state House committee on agriculture rejected a bill Thursday that sought to impose buffer zones for large agricultural companies that spray restricted-use pesticides near schools and other sensitive areas.
The proposal, House Bill 1514, was introduced by Rep. Chris Lee and reflected widespread fears about the impact of genetically modified farming and its associated pesticide use. The measure also sought to require more disclosure from companies about what kinds of pesticides they use and in what amounts.
The Hawaii chapter of the national nonprofit Center for Food Safety supported the bill, which had strong backing from neighbor island residents. Maui, Kauai and the Big Island all passed laws recently to regulate the seed industry but federal court decisions have indicated that counties don’t have that power.
The Center for Food Safety’s Hawaii director, Ashley Lukens, said after Thursday’s hearing that she was frustrated by the limited amount of time advocates were given to testify.
“It was clear from the very beginning that the hearing was intended to allow the industry to reiterate their talking points,” she said.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Clift Tsuji, did not reply to a request for comment Thursday.
Companies like Monsanto that compose Hawaii’s $243 million seed industry argued that the measure was misguided. Several farming organizations opposed it as well.
“HB 1514 will take farmland out of production, increase costs, and make it even more difficult to
farm in Hawaii,” the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation said in written testimony.
The state Department of Agriculture was also critical of the bill and its focus on the seed industry. Data from the agency shows that less than a third of restricted-use pesticides purchased in Hawaii in 2013 were used for agricultural purposes.
The department’s chairman Scott Enright said that the size of the buffer zones proposed — 3/4 of a mile — didn’t seem to be grounded in science.
“It’s ripe for potential lawsuits,” he said.
The idea of imposing buffer zones still has a chance in the Senate, but must pass key hurdles.
Three similar measures have passed the Senate committees on health and the environment but are waiting for additional hearings.
The senator said Friday that she hasn’t decided yet whether to call a hearing for the proposals. She said she plans to review their committee reports and make a decision in the next week or two.
She said the big question is whether or not the Department of Agriculture has the capacity to enforce the provisions in the bills, and how much money it would take for them to effectively carry out the law.
“We don’t want to just pass measures and not have them enforced,” Tokuda said. “The concern is placing unfunded mandates on the department that then will impact all other areas of the department by passing things without providing them the resources to actually do it.”
A third bill, Senate Bill 793, is awaiting a hearing from Tokuda and Consumer Protection Committee Chairwoman Rosalyn Baker from Maui. Last year, Baker opposed bills targeting the seed industry; she did not reply to a request for comment Thursday.