Hawaii residents can expect to have more information soon about what pesticides large agricultural companies are applying to crops statewide.
The state Department of Agriculture is planning to expand the Good Neighbor Program, a voluntary effort on Kauai in which large agricultural companies — Dow AgroSciences, Pioneer, Syngenta, BASF and Kauai Coffee Company — voluntarily report the types and amounts of restricted-use pesticides that are sprayed each month.
The companies also abide by 100-foot buffer zones for pesticide applications and upon request, notify neighbors before spraying.
Scott Enright, director of the state Agriculture Department, said he expects the program to be implemented statewide by the end of the year. He declined to provide details because discussions with the companies are ongoing.
Enright said the expanded program is in response to widespread concerns from residents about what chemicals Monsanto and other seed companies use when they grow genetically modified crops.
“We have been listening to the communities,” said Enright.
John P. Purcell, vice president at Monsanto Hawaii, said in a statement that the company is “working on a model that incorporates information on good farming neighbor practices based on our existing farm stewardship practices.”
“We are in conversations with the Hawaii Department of Agriculture and once we have something in place, we will be able to share this broadly,” Purcell said in the statement. “Safety and stewardship are our top priorities and as part of this effort, we have expanded our education and outreach efforts to ensure the public that we are using the most updated farm stewardship practices to care for the health of our neighbors, communities and our land.”
Advocates for more regulation of large agricultural companies applauded the planned expansion of the Good Neighbor Program, but said it should be mandatory.
Still, the program’s expansion statewide would provide a significant increase in information about what restricted-use pesticides are being used in Hawaii and in what amounts. That’s because the state only makes public information about what pesticides are sold, not how they’re actually used.
Apart from Kauai’s Good Neighbor Program, the only publicly available data about pesticide use in Hawaii is a broad summary of the types and amounts of restricted use pesticides sold on each island. Companies aren’t required to publicly report what restricted-use pesticides they actually use, nor any information about where those chemicals are applied. And the Agriculture Department doesn’t collect any information about general-use pesticides like glyphosate due to resource constraints.
“While voluntary programs are not a substitute for regulation and mandatory oversight, the expansion of this program will offer communities on all of our islands access to critical information about pesticide use near their homes and their children’s schools,” said Ashley Lukens, executive director of the Hawaii Center for Food Safety.
Lukens was one of many advocates who unsuccessfully lobbied for Senate Bill 1037, which would have required large agricultural companies to report their pesticide use each month.
“Time and time again we’ve seen that voluntary measures don’t capture bad actors so a voluntary program isn’t going to be adequate by itself, but information is absolutely a starting point,” she said of the planned expansion of the Good Neighbor Program.
Kauai Councilman Gary Hooser was more critical, contending that the program “provides a false sense of knowledge and security.”
“It’s volunteer so we have no way of knowing how accurate the numbers are unless there’s some government oversight,” Hooser said.
But Enright opposed SB 1037 during the legislative session this year.
He said he had two concerns about the legislation, the first being that it targeted biotech companies. Secondly, he said that if it were applied more widely, it would unduly burden smaller farmers.
“In a state that’s already having difficulty attracting agriculturalists and getting them up and going, are we going to put further restrictions on them?” he said.
He said the Good Neighbor Program shows that both the state and the companies are responding to the community’s apprehensions, including concerns about chemicals possibly polluting the water and causing cancer clusters.
“We need to be responsive in showing that’s not the case,” he said.
Hooser was behind Bill 2491, a hotly contested measure that was approved by the Kauai County Council in 2013 and imposed mandatory pesticide use reporting on large agriculture companies as well as buffer zones.
While the Good Neighbor Program incorporates some elements of Bill 2491, it’s missing many of the requirements that would have been imposed had the law not been struck down by a federal judge.
Bill 2491 would have required weekly pesticide use reporting, not monthly; details about the locations where pesticides were applied and the exact dates and times; as well as the wind speed, field size and other details affecting the chemicals’ impact. The companies would have needed to send out pre-application notices to anyone living within 1,500 feet who requested a notice, and some buffer zones were up to 500 feet.
“The voluntary buffer zone of 100 feet is woefully inadequate,” Hooser said.
Perhaps the biggest difference is that the Good Neighbor Program only includes reporting of restricted-use pesticides. There isn’t any information provided about the amount of general-use pesticides applied, such as glyphosate, also known as RoundUp.
Enright said that the Good Neighbor Program focused on restricted-use pesticides because they are generally considered more dangerous by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and were the subject of more public concern when Bill 2491 was being debated.
But to Hooser, the absence of that data is significant. Still, he emphasizes that even if it were provided, the key to making the program effective is making it mandatory.
“Without some oversight it’s based on pure trust of the industry,” he said. “My experience with the industry is that’s not enough.”
The Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, a trade group representing seed companies doing business in Hawaii, issued the following statement regarding the expansion of the Good Neighbor Program and concerns about its limitations:
|Over the past year, our member companies have been reviewing the outcomes of the voluntary Good Neighbor program on the Island of Kauai, and we can validate its positive impact in establishing good communications with the communities surrounding our operations.
With this in mind, we have been working with the Hawaii Department of Agriculture since March to develop a voluntary program that will demonstrate our desire to be good neighbors.
We recognize, however, that each farm and each county is different, and so our members have been in discussions with the Department of Agriculture to identify parameters that take into consideration the unique features of each farm and their surrounding communities.
In addition, it is important to note that the industry is taking proactive steps to broaden the communication beyond pesticide use by focusing on the issue of stewardship of the land. HCIA will be unveiling the details of the industry’s broader stewardship plan to further safeguard our State’s natural resources.