Posted 9 months ago on Nov. 26, 2013, 3:54 p.m. EST by LeoYo
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On the Front Lines of Hawaii's GMO War, Part Two
Tuesday, 26 November 2013 09:07 By Mike Ludwig, Truthout | Report
This is the second and final installment in an in-depth series on resistance to pesticides and GMO farming on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. To read Part One, click here http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/20170-on-the-front-lines-of-hawaiis-gmo-war .
Michael is one of dozens of workers and their allies wearing gray shirts and gathered on November 14 outside of the county building on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. He says he is a "sprayer" for Syngenta, one of the four international biotech and agrichemical companies that develop and produce hybrid and genetically engineered crop seeds on the island. He doesn't want to share his last name, but he will share his views on the ensuing drama over Bill 2491, a piece of local legislation that has become the most divisive controversy that the Garden Island's 67,000 residents have seen in years.
"They're telling us we are poisoning people, and I don't think we are poisoning anybody," Michael says.
Michael and his coworkers are here to tell the Kauai County Council not to override Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho's recent veto of Bill 2491, which the council passed by a 6-1 vote.
The bill specifically targets Syngenta, Dow Agrichemical, Dupont-Pioneer and BASF with new pesticide regulations requiring they publicly disclose the details of pesticide sprays, observe buffer zones around schools and hospitals, and comply with an environmental impact study. The Kauai Coffee Company, which operates a large farm on the island, is included in the bill, but other agricultural operations are exempt.
The five companies are not the only firms using pesticides on Kauai, but they do use 98 percent of the "restricted use" pesticides sprayed on the island. Federal law demands these chemicals only be applied by, or under the supervision of, workers, who, like Michael, have certified training. The seeds produced and developed at the biotech test farms are not considered food products, and some are genetically engineered to tolerate patented pesticide formulas; so the biotech firms can use more chemicals on their experimental development plots than traditional farms. According to the slim amount of data available in state records, the biotech companies purchased a combined total of 5,447 pounds and 4,324 gallons of 22 different restricted-use pesticides to use on the island in 2012 alone. Some of these restricted-use pesticides, such as atrazine and paraquat, have been linked to health problems. Atrazine is banned in Europe but is the most popular herbicide in the United States, and the Environmental Protection Agency is currently reevaluating the chemical's carcinogenic potential in response to concerns from independent scientists. Others, such as permethrin, are toxic to fish and aquatic life.
On the west side of Kauai, where biotech seed testing and development plots operate near schools and residential neighborhoods, some residents fear that the large volumes of pesticides applied on biotech farms and development plots may be contributing to disease and hurting wildlife in rivers and the ocean. Local doctors and nurses have reported a spike in rare birth defects. Teachers at a west side middle school claim Syngenta's pesticides drifted into their classrooms and made students sick on several occasions between 2006 and 2008, a charge Syngenta denies. Forcing the biotech companies to disclose the details of their pesticide use, activists say, will help residents protect their children, doctors advise their patients and researchers determine if the chemicals actually pose a threat to public health and the environment.
The biotech companies, however, say that Bill 2491 unfairly singles out their businesses with costly regulations, and they rallied their workers against what they call an attack on jobs and farmers. Michael looks across the police tape separating the bill's opponents from its supporters. More residents from the west side have showed up to testify in support the bill than at past council meetings, but many of Bill 2491's supporters live on other parts of the island where wealthy mainlanders retire in luxury homes and tourism, not agriculture, is the lifeblood of the economy. Some are not just concerned about pesticides, but are ideologically opposed to industrial agriculture and the biotech industry's genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, all together. Michael wonders if targeting his employer with Bill 2491 is part of a "land grab" of Kauai's working class west side. "You can't have million dollar houses and shopping malls with working people around," he says.
GMO Ground Zero
Along with Monsanto, which operates on other islands, the world's top producers of pesticides and GMO seeds have made a home in Hawaii, where three growing seasons support seed development and open-air GMO experiments. The five companies employ about 1,800 people across the state and have made Hawaii the world's leading producer of seed corn, which accounts for 96 percent of the state's $247 million biotech agriculture industry, according to the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, which represents the biotech companies. Virtually every GMO seed variety has spent some time in development on a Hawaiian island.
The biotech firms also brought to Hawaii the controversy that constantly swirls around them. GMO crops, and the chemical-laden industrial agriculture practices that are designed around them, are at the center of a global debate over the future of food. In September, thousands protested on Kauai in support of Bill 2491 and against GMOs, and last week the county council on the island of Hawaii passed a bill banning new GMO crop development on the Big Island. On November 14, the lines are drawn once again on the lawn outside the Kauai county building, with seed farm workers one side of a police partition and groups of environmentalists, concerned residents and hardline anti-GMO activists on the other. The debate has gotten ugly and threatened to divide the tight-knit island. After he vetoed Bill 2491, Mayor Carvalho was reportedly called "birth-defects mayor" by his detractors and received threatening calls and emails. As the council considers overriding the veto, both sides are calling for "aloha and respect."