Hawaii bans use of harmful pesticide

| 18th June 2018

Wailua River, Kauai, Hawaii

Wikimedia Commons
The government of Hawaii - once a defender of the GM corn industry - has passed a law that forces agro-chemical companies to disclose what pesticides they spray. It has also become the first US state to ban the chlorpyrifos, which has been linked to brain damage in babies. Christopher Pala reports

So how did a group of determined activists and politicians manage to reverse two centuries of the Hawaii government coddling Big Ag? This is an object lesson in persistence that other states and countries could emulate.

Multinationals had turned the Aloha State in Hawaii into the global center of genetically modified (GM) corn over the past 15 years.

Activists and voters have been trying for years to get the giant agro-chemical companies that grow experimental corn there to disclose which toxic pesticides they spray and to create buffer zones between fields and schools.

The communities had been given no protection - even after it was reported in The Guardian that there was an unexplained spike in birth defects near the plantations. But now, three years later, the political winds have shifted. 

Taking on the agro-chemical giants

The state legislature last month passed a bill that will force the companies to disclose once a year exactly what they have sprayed, where and when. They are also required to set up buffer zones of 100 feet around schools when they are in session.  

Better yet, the new bill will make Hawaii the first state in the United States to phase out the use of Dow Chemical’s chlorpyrifos, a particularly toxic insecticide, on food crops, notably corn.

The bill will be a poke in the eye for Scott Pruitt, administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency. 

The EPA had decided under Barack Obama, the former president, to ban chlorpyrifos’ use on commercial crops. But Pruitt reversed this move.

So how did a group of determined activists and politicians manage to reverse two centuries of the Hawaii government coddling Big Ag? This is an object lesson in persistence that other states and countries could emulate.

Exploiting the land

The British explorer James Cook discovered Hawaii in 1778. American businessmen, dominated by export-oriented sugar plantation owners, overthrew Queen Liliuokalani, dissolved the independent Kingdom of Hawaii and persuaded Washington to annex the archipelago a century later. It became a full state in 1959.

Sugar growers were joined by pineapple plantations in farming the best lands for export crops. As a result, once self-sufficient Hawaii was importing two-thirds of its food by the 1930s. 

But competition from Asia for both crops led the companies to close down many operations. So when giant multinational companies came knocking in the early 2000s with offers to take over the land, they were welcomed with open arms and generous tax breaks.

But Monsanto, DuPont-Pioneer, Dow Chemical, Syngenta and BASF were not interested in producing food in Hawaii. They were attracted by the balmy climate because it allowed them to grow three or four crops of experimental corn a year, versus one or two in the continental United States. 

Pesticide drift

Their goal was to test new varieties of industrial corn, genetically engineered in their labs to tolerate the pesticides they would sell with the corn to the farmers.

Far greater amounts of restricted-use pesticides are used per acre for GM corn in Hawaii than by ordinary commercial farming on the mainland – 17 times higher in Kauai, according to the Center for Food Safety.

Kauai is the island with the largest number of people living near the biggest concentration of GM fields, which are, as in the other islands, far from the tourist beaches. 

The entire Hawaii production of these new varieties of corn is sent to the mainland US to be turned into seed corn, whose offspring is sold to farmers with the pesticides it requires. 

Over the years, opposition grew to the multinationals’ frequent spraying of some two dozen toxic pesticides, of which they won’t disclose exactly which are sprayed when and where.

Frequent cases of pesticide drift into houses, schools and well-travelled roads went unpunished, even though pesticide drift is a crime punishable by up to six months in jail.

Lack of transparency

Bennette Misalucha, executive director of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, the companies’ lobbying group, declined through a spokesman to say why the companies strongly opposed detailed disclosure.

And asked about the frequency of drift, she wrote: “Farmers use pesticides only as necessary and within the strict rules established by the EPA.”

The then-councilman Gary Hooser, one of leaders of the movement in Kauai, said the opposition reached critical mass in the run-up to the 2012 elections. “Everywhere I went, people told me, Gary, we gotta do something about this.”

Many who complained were descendants of plantation workers who lived in houses abutting the frequently sprayed fields. After an intense campaign, the Kauai county council passed an ordinance that ordered the companies to create buffer zones and to disclose what they sprayed.

Companies fight back

Meanwhile, another group was organising a voter initiative in the islands of Maui and Molokai, which form one county. The proposition called for an end to all pesticide spraying until an environmental impact study could certify that it caused no harm.

It was the first such initiative in the county’s history and it passed by 51 percent, despite Monsanto spending $5 million to fund opposition to it. 

On the Big Island, which has no GM corn, the county council passed a resolution that forbade the companies from starting corn seed farms there.

And in Honolulu, Josh Green, a physician who was then chairman of the state senate’s health committee, drafted two laws, one stronger than the other, with similar restrictions, which were approved by the Senate.

He said in an interview at the time that he expected at least the weakest one to pass the House. Marches held in support of these efforts attracted tens of thousands of people.

But the company-friendly chairman of the House agriculture committee, Clifton Tsuji, didn’t even allow a vote on the bills. 

Power to the people

Meanwhile, the companies sued the counties on the grounds that only the State of Hawaii had the power to regulate pesticides, even if it manifestly wasn’t doing so (for instance, the state registry of birth defects stopped in 2005, so there is no data on their correlation with pesticide exposure). The companies won in federal district court and again on appeal. 

The score in 2016 stood at companies 4, people 0.

Undeterred, the disparate activists gathered to focus all their energy on the legislature. “Thousands of people from across the state were sending emails, knocking on legislators’ doors and filling up their voice-mail boxes with messages to pass the bill,” said Hooser, a former state senate majority leader.

“Eventually, they realised the issue wasn’t going to go away, so the house leadership proposed a reasonable bill that included annual disclosure for all users of restricted-use pesticides, and modest buffer zones around all schools in Hawaii,” he continued. The campaigners threw their support behind the bill. 

The new head of the state House agriculture committee, a physician named Richard Creagan, even added a clause banning the insecticide chlorpyrifos in Hawaii within four years – the first U.S. state to do so.

“It helped that the EU had banned chlorpyrifos,” he said. "The evidence that it damages the brains of children and fetuses has become overwhelming,” Creagan told The Ecologist.

“Finally we emphasized that if we banned it in Hawaii, it would mean our produce was safer than California’s and the bill would support Hawaii-grown, chlorpyrifos-free produce.” Chlorpyrifos, a nerve toxin, makes up two-thirds of the restricted-use insecticides used in Kauai.

Just the beginning

The bill passed unanimously in both houses. Gov. Ige signed it on June 13 after he was briefed by Dr Virginia Rauh of Columbia University, the author of a landmark study on chlorpyrifos’ effect on children.

For Hooser, this is just the beginning. “What we really need is detailed prior notification – what chemicals will be sprayed where and when,” he said.

“Doctors need to know exactly what their patients may have inhaled, and people who live near the fields need to know what they and their children could be exposed to.”

This Author

Christopher Pala is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. and a former New York Times correspondent in Hawaii.

Help us keep The Ecologist working for the planet

The Ecologist website is a free service, published by The Resurgence Trust, a UK-based educational charity. We work hard - with a small budget and tiny editorial team - to bring you the wide-ranging, independent journalism we know you value and enjoy, but we need your help. Please make a donation to support The Ecologist platform. Thank you!

Donate to us here