(Beyond Pesticides, July 1, 2014) Early last month, Maui County residents gathered enough signatures to require a county-wide vote on legislation that will put in place a moratorium on the planting of genetically engineered (GE) crops. This achievement represents the first ever citizen driven initiative in Maui County, which encompasses Maui, Molokai and Lanai islands. The petition drive was spearheaded by the SHAKA (Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and the Aina) Movement, a grassroots campaign that is “preserving paradise for future generation by reclaiming, restoring and revitalizing depleted soil, and growing healthy foods without a dependence on chemicals,” according to Mark Sheehan, a spokesman for the group.
Maui’s citizen initiative is part of a growing movement on the Hawaiian Islands that seeks to protect health and the environment while strengthening local food economies and resiliency. Residents living on the Hawaiian Islands are subject to a particularly pronounced form of environmental assault, as the state’s premiere growing conditions have made it a prime target for agrichemical companies to test new, experimental forms of GE crops. Data released earlier this year reveals that high levels of restricted use pesticides, in some cases almost double the pounds per acre average of other states, are being used in Kauai County. Residents of the Hawaiian Islands that live, work, or go to school near these fields are subject to incessant pesticide spraying, as the climate provides a year-round growing season for GE crops. A May 2014 report found 25 herbicides, 11 insecticides and 6 fungicides in Hawaii’s waterways, underscoring resident concerns for both the land and human health.
The SHAKA movement faced a steep climb in gathering petition signatures, as Maui’s law only allows citizen initiatives if signatures are collected from 20 percent of residents who voted in the county’s last election. Over 9,000 valid signatures were collected by the group, more than enough to place the measure on the ballot. Before heading to the voting booth, however, the ordinance moves to the county council, which has two months to decide whether to enact the initiative or bring it to a vote in November. The citizen bill was referred to the county committee on intergovernmental affairs, which earlier this year failed to move legislation that would have require fewer restrictions for GE plantings than the current initiative. So if previous action from the council is any indication, it is likely that Maui residents will be deciding the fate of this bill.
Late last year, Kauai, Hawaii became the first locality in the nation to enact restrictions on the planting of genetically modified crops and the associated use of hazardous pesticides. Hawaii County (The Big Island) also passed a bill that banned the open growing of any new GE organisms. Although both of these bills were a response to an outpouring of public support for increased health protections from GE crops and associated pesticide use, they were hard fought, as agrichemical companies worked furiously to lobby local and state leaders to weaken or drop the bills. And even after hard-won passage, agrichemical giants have continued their assault on the rights of localities, suing both Kauai and Hawaii County. Apart from lawsuits and lobbying, agrichemical companies have been pouring money into political candidates in an effort to sway or stop legislation that restricts GE agriculture. The Center for Media and Democracy put together a break-down of agrichemical industry spending in the state.
Despite the deep pockets of the agrichemical industry, residents both in Hawaii and across the United States continue to raise their voices for increased protections from GE crops and the hazardous pesticide use that is associated with their planting. If Maui’s measure ultimately goes to the ballot, the county won’t be the first U.S locality that gets a chance to bar the planting of GE crops. In May, Jackson and Josephine County, Oregon voted overwhelmingly to ban the cultivation, production, and distribution of GE crops within their borders. “We fought the most powerful and influential chemical companies in the world and we won,” said Elise Higley, a Jackson County farmer and representative from Our Family Farms Coalition told Oregon Live. The fights may be long, drawn out, and grueling, but concerned residents continue to stand up for common sense protections in order to safeguard the health of themselves, their families, their community members, and the unique areas in which they live.
You can support the SHAKA Movement by visiting them through their website. Additional background on the fight for increased protections on the Hawaiian Islands, including testimony Beyond Pesticides provided in support of Kauai’s Bill 2491, can be found here. For more information on the hazards that continue to be associated with the growth of GE agriculture, see Beyond Pesticides Genetic Engineering webpage.