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Hawaii anti-GMO activists shift focus to ag pesticides

By Joan Conrow

Anti-GMO protests are now a thing of the past in Hawaii. Photo Hawaii Free Press

In keeping with what some perceive as an international trend, the anti-GMO movement in Hawaii is shriveling, prompting it to adopt new fear-mongering tactics in a bid to stay relevant and solicit funds.

The most prominent of the American anti-GMO groups, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Food Safety, has cut funding to its Hawaii office following the chapter’s prominent political and legal failures in the Islands. 

CFS-Hawaii floundered first in its legal strategy of attempting to create a national legal precedent for allowing counties to assert authority over GMO crops and pesticides. Though activists succeeded in getting GMO regulatory measures passed in the rural counties of Maui, Kauai and Hawaii, all three laws were struck down. A federal appeals panel upheld the local court rulings, finding the laws were pre-empted by state and federal jurisdiction.   

Though plaintiffs CFS and Earthjustice pronounced the decision wrong and tried to spin it as a victory, they never went on to legally challenge the 2016 ruling.

CFS-Hawaii then botched efforts to create a political affiliation with Hawaiian sovereignty and independence groups, which accurately perceived they were being used to further anti-GMO goals that had nothing to do with native Hawaiian concerns about federal recognition and control of land and water. Some anti-GMO activists who had originally aligned with CFS-Hawaii took to denouncing the group and its lack of success in social media:

But though the fervor has faded with the withdrawal of cash, anti-GMO activists have retained some viability in Hawaii by fanning public fears about pesticides, particularly glyphosate — an approach that aligns with the current strategy of the international anti-GMO movement.

Activists found some support among key Hawaii legislators, one of whom runs two organic food stores. Other lawmakers perceive the pesticide issue as a way to curry public favor in an election year. As a result, the state Legislature has introduced nearly two-dozen measures dealing with mandatory buffer zones and pesticide use and disclosure.

But as evidence that these bills are really anti-GMO measures in disguise, the proposed legislation targets only agriculture, and not the pest control and termite treatment companies that are the number one users of restricted use pesticides in Hawaii.  Indeed, these companies are specifically exempted from some of the bills.

Legislators also have introduced bills imposing a moratorium on the open-air testing and cultivation of genetically engineered crops pending a statewide environmental impact statement, which would effectively destroy the state’s 50-year-old parent seed industry and harm cattle ranchers growing feed.

Still other bills seek to give counties the authority to enact their own pesticide regulations, and change the composition of the state’s pesticide advisory committee. Yet another calls for a ban on the use of any restricted use pesticide (RUP) within one-quarter mile of any hospital, public park, public building, public beach, church, or any other public area, or within five hundred feet of any school grounds or private home — a measure apparently ignorant of the fact that municipal authorities use significant amounts of chlorine, an RUP, to purify water and treat sewage.

What’s more, these measures specifically target large agricultural users, which is code for the seed companies, even though Scott Enright, director of the state Department of Agriculture, has characterized them as the most responsible and careful pesticide applicators in the history of the state. 

Furthermore, all the studies conducted to date by state agencies and even activist groups have found no more than trace amounts — far below federal threshold levels — of pesticides in the water and air near agricultural sites. Indeed, urban streams on the heavily populated island of Oahu contained higher levels of pesticide residue than any rural area, indicating that homeowner and pest treatment companies are having the greatest impact.

Additionally, not one school evacuation has been tied to pesticide use by agricultural entities. Instead, they were caused by improper use by homeowners, and in one case, a company growing turf, according to a state assessment. And though activists love to claim that people are being "poisoned" by agriculture, drugs account for 93 percent of Hawaii's poisoning cases, according to the state Department of Health. Indeed, the first entity to use the "poisoning of paradise" slogan was the FBI, in reference to Hawaii's crystal methamphetamine epidemic. Activist groups later co-opted it as a slur against the seed companies, as the "ice" epidemic rages on.

Yet not one bill calls for educating homeowners about the proper use of pesticides, nor have activists groups launched such awareness campaign. There has been no criticism of pesticides used by termite treatment companies, even though they apply three times more than agriculture.  Golf courses and hotels also have gotten a free pass, even though they account for the bulk of the chloropyrifos applied in the state. Only the seed companies have been dinged for their use of the product, with several bills calling for a ban on its use in agriculture.

Such is the insanity of the ongoing push to unilaterally demonize pesticides, and most especially glyphosate (Roundup), in an attempt to inflict financial harm on the companies that grow GMO and hybrid parent seed crops.

Though it’s unlikely that all these bills will pass, some will get a public hearing, giving activists an opportunity to make false and misleading statements about agriculture in general and the seed companies in particular. These erroneous and typically fear-based claims are often picked up by sympathetic media outlets, such as Civil Beat and Hawaii Public Radio’s The Conversation, and circulated on social media.

They're particularly fond of asserting that agriculture and pesticides are completely unregulated in Hawaii. However, as Enright asserts: "Our pesticides branch does more rigorous testing, and is on-site far more often, than just about any state in the country." That's due in part to the fact that the ag sector is so small in the Islands that inspectors cycle through the farms much more often than Midwest states where agriculture dominates.

But in making outrageous claims that are rarely challenged, activists fan the fear that drives the bulk of their fundraising efforts while undermining the viability of all agriculture in a state that imports 90 percent of its food and is rapidly losing farmland to urbanization. Ironically, they blame the seed companies for taking up land that could be used to grow food for local consumption, even though tens of thousands of acres of farm land lie fallow.

The anti-GMO movement in Hawaii has always been orchestrated and funded by mainland anti-GMO groups determined to oust the seed companies from the Islands as a way to disrupt the parent seed production that supports GMO crops around the world. But it's picked up some key allies, namely realtors who have founded and financed anti-GMO groups like SHAKA on Maui and contributed heavily to the campaigns of anti-GMO activists. It’s no secret that many of the lands now used for seed production, with their favorable weather and often amazing views, are coveted for more of the gentrification that has driven up the price of agricultural land to the point where farming is no longer economically feasible. In an island-state where land is finite, ag lands are the final development frontier.

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