WAILUKU - A prominent doctor, a Molokai community activist and the head of a local national environmental organization all voiced support Friday for a bill to regulate pesticides and genetically modified organisms for large farms in Maui County.
"I'm for the bill. This is the first step in the disclosure in the correct regulation of GMO farming practices. My issue is not with the farmers. . . . My issue is with the regulators and with the all-encompassing guys that set the rules," said Dr. Lorrin Pang, state Health Department Maui District health officer, who was testifying on his own behalf.
His worries lie in the combinations of the chemicals in pesticides that he said "have not been looked at."
Seven years ago, Pang said, he went to west Kauai, where children were sick at a school.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was on the island representing the GMO companies, he said. Pang said he asked the EPA officer if the combinations of pesticides were being examined, and he got no answer. He again didn't get any answer as he questioned the officer about the possible dangers of combining chemicals, he said.
Pang was one of 80 testifiers who addressed the Maui County Council's Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee on Friday in Council Chambers in the Kalana O Maui Building. Of the 80 speakers, 29 testified in person on Maui and 51 testified via phone from Molokai.
The meeting was a continuation of one started Tuesday when 96 people testified. (The numbers do not include written testimony submitted to the committee.)
The committee had gone through its list of testifiers by Friday afternoon. Another meeting for the committee to discuss the bill will be held at a later date, said committee Chairman Riki Hokama.
After the meeting, he said there was still a possibility that the committee might travel to Molokai to hear the community's concerns.
The bill, introduced by Council Member Elle Cochran, would require large farms to have pesticide buffer zones, to report pesticide applications and GMOs in crops, and to notify the public about pesticide applications.
Cochran has said the bill is modeled after one on Kauai that has become law. But in light of a legal challenge to the Kauai law, she already has made and will continue to make more amendments to the Maui bill as she hears more from the community, the council member said.
Molokai resident and community activist Walter Ritte, who has been a vocal foe of GMOs across the state, said "we need to regulate these companies."
"We are afraid for our children. We have to drive twice a day in all of this dust and pesticides," he said via phone to the committee.
Ritte said he worries about GMO fields being near homesteads, Molokai High and Kualapuu Elementary schools and fields that surround the Molokai Irrigation System, which not only provides water to fields but to Maunaloa town and the west side of Molokai.
Lucienne de Naie of Sierra Club Maui said the Sierra Club supports the bill's intent, including the people's right to know what types of restricted pesticides are being sprayed on farms. She said that if more were known about what is sprayed and how chemicals are used, then large farming companies would not be "attacked" as much.
De Naie said she believes that large farming companies, including Monsanto, safely use pesticides. But she said more research is needed to know more about possible health effects.
The use of cigarettes at first were considered safe, but through the years, people have come to know the true health risks of smoking, she added.
The Sierra Club includes in its decision-making input from researchers and members on all sides of issues, de Naie added, noting that the club was not presenting an opinion that was derived from only one point of view.
She said that the Maui bill still needs work and should be worded to be sure that small farms are not hurt by the legislation.
Monsanto, the seed company with operations on Maui and Molokai that would be affected by the legislation, had many of its employees testify at both council committee meetings.
On Molokai, Monsanto employee Carl Adolpho said that the company takes the application and use of pesticides seriously and that the requirements to be able to apply pesticides are complicated. He said that the concerns of pesticides drifting in the wind, getting into the water table and other effects are all addressed in company materials.
Adolpho said he doesn't base his opinion on what he's read on Google or an article he found on Facebook.
"I believe what I have studied and seen in my own eyes," he said.
Carol Reimann, community and government affairs manager for Monsanto on Maui, said: "Why is Maui County getting involved in an area that is already regulated by the state and federal government?"
She also asked if the county has funds to implement the bill and questioned why the bill discriminates only against farmers.
"Is this bill really about the health and safety in our community or about singling out agriculture?" she asked.
Reimann pointed out that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were more than 47 million cases of food-borne illnesses in the United States, with 120,000 hospitalizations and more than 3,000 deaths in 2011.
On the other hand, she said, the National Pesticide Information Centers latest report says that there were 3,000 human pesticide exposure incidents in the U.S., of which three-quarters occurred in the home or yard, with 5 percent agriculturally related.
Of those numbers, 46.8 percent reported no symptoms in the victims, and there were no deaths, she said.
"If this bill is truly about health and safety, statistics provide there are more instances of food-borne illness versus pesticide issues," she added.
Reimann also reflected on her personal life being raised on Maui and her elders living near and working in the plantation fields.
"They all lived to ripe old ages," she added.
Reimann said she and her peers played outside when "black ash," or soot, from the burning sugar cane would fall but, yet, they had no respiratory issues.
"This shouldn't be about Monsanto or HC&S as we are all farmers and we have history in our community," she said.
As Maui County wrestles with its own pesticide and GMO legislation, other legislation dealing with similar issues is being heard in the state Legislature.
Senate Bill 2736 would require the labeling of food that contains genetically engineered material. On Tuesday, the Senate's Health Committee recommended the measure be passed without any amendments. The measure was referred to the Senate's Commerce and Consumer Protection, Agriculture and Ways and Means committees. No hearings on the bill were posted online as of Friday.
Also, Senate Bill 3058 and House Bill 2506 would amend Hawaii's Right to Farm Act, which could make the Maui pesticides and GMO regulation bill moot, along with similar laws and bills on other islands. The bill in essence would "ensure that counties cannot enact laws, ordinances or resolutions to limit the rights of farmers and ranchers to engage in modern farming and ranching practices," according to legislative documents.
The two bills have not been scheduled for a hearing in either chamber as of Friday.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at email@example.com.