Two state lawmakers want to strengthen Hawaii's Right to Farm Act by preventing counties from restricting agricultural technology, modern livestock production and ranching practices that are allowed under federal and state law.
The bill was prompted by a Kauai County law that regulates genetically modified organisms and pesticide use and a Hawaii County law that bans new GMO crops. The bill could cast a legal cloud over the Kauai and Hawaii island laws and could preclude other counties from taking similar action to restrict GMOs.
Hawaii's Right to Farm Act, passed in 2001, created a legal presumption that generally accepted farming operations do not constitute a nuisance. The bill would expand the act by stating that the right to engage in modern farming and ranching practices "shall be forever guaranteed in this state."
The bill maintains that the federal and state governments — and not the counties — are responsible for the oversight of agriculture in Hawaii.
Sen. Clarence Nishihara (D, Waipahu-Pearl City), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, who introduced the bill Thursday in the Senate, said the state can no longer "dance around the issue" of whether to protect farmers.
"To me it's now put-up-or-shut-up time as far as I'm concerned," he said.
Rep. Richard Onishi (D, South Hilo-Keaau-Honuapo), vice chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, who introduced the bill in the House, said farmers should have all of the tools legally available for them in order to farm.
"I personally support all forms of farming," he said. "I think that when we begin to pit segments of agriculture against each other, it becomes unproductive."
Gov. Neil Abercrombie has for now chosen to sidestep the debate over GMOs after reaching an agreement last year with biotechnology companies on Kauai on the voluntary disclosure of restricted-use pesticides and buffer zones near schools and hospitals.
Biotech companies have sued Kauai in federal court over the county's GMO and pesticide disclosure law, arguing, among other claims, that federal and state law pre-empt the county's new regulations.
House and Senate leaders have given committees with jurisdiction over agriculture, health and the environment leeway this session in developing legislation on the right to farm, GMO labeling, pesticide disclosure and food security. The debate over GMOs was so strident last session — and so divisive on Kauai and Hawaii island — that lawmakers have lowered expectations that new legislation can pass during an election year.
Anti-GMO activists, who have successfully forced the issue onto the state's policy agenda, are planning a large rally Wednesday at the state Capitol.
Many lawmakers privately believe that the threat from GMOs has been exaggerated by the activists, yet do not want to take the political risk of ignoring a vocal and increasingly single-minded bloc of mostly progressive voters. Many, however, are equally apprehensive about treading too far into county home rule by aggressively asserting the state's regulatory authority over agriculture.
Chris Manfredi, president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation, said the bureau supports a right-to-farm bill.
"We certainly support the right of the public to know and understand what's happening on farms. But to have a patchwork of regulations across the state creates uncertainty in the industry, it sets up an economic environment in which investments are discouraged, and young farmers and ranchers are then deterred from pursuing careers in agriculture," he said.
Kauai County Councilman Gary Hooser, who was behind the Kauai GMO and pesticide regulation law, has said that taking away county authority is "both bad policy and bad politics."
Rep. Jessica Wooley (D, Kahaluu-Ahuimanu-Kaneohe), chairwoman of the House Agriculture Committee, said she does not plan to hear the right-to-farm bill. She said the bill would interfere with the counties' efforts and that state pre-emption is a subject of the biotech lawsuit against Kauai. She said she would prefer to focus on issues such as enhancing local food production.
Wooley said she wants to make food security a state policy priority.
"I'm not going to hear a bill like that until we hear some good bills where there is a lot of common ground," she said of the right-to-farm bill.
The House approved a GMO labeling bill on imported produce last session that failed to advance — but remains alive — in the Senate. House leaders have said that it is basically up to the Senate whether a GMO labeling bill will move this session, but Wooley introduced a new House version Thursday.
Wooley also held a hearing Thursday on a bill that would direct the state Department of Agriculture to lease ag land for food production, not seed development, which some farming interests view as a dig toward biotech companies. The Department of Agriculture and the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation told Wooley's committee that the bill would not only exclude seed, but livestock, aquaculture and flowers.
Sen. Mike Gabbard (D, Kapolei-Makakilo), chairman of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee, has introduced GMO labeling and pesticide disclosure bills. One of his GMO labeling bills would put the issue before voters in November in a state constitutional amendment.
"As we can see from actions by the neighbor islands on this issue, thousands of people statewide are demanding that GMO foods be labeled. There's absolutely no rational basis for preventing people from deciding for themselves, whether they want to eat GMOs. This time around, I also included a proposal to put a question on the ballot to let the people have a real voice in this incredibly important issue," Gabbard said in an email.
"I also took a look at what they did on Kauai with the pesticide disclosure and buffer zones and expanded that for the whole state. I keep hearing reports of plans to douse the aina with cocktails of toxic chemicals that are being looked at, including 2,4-D and dicamba. It's insane for us not to take this very seriously considering the potential health and environmental impacts."
Sen. Josh Green (D, Naalehu-Kailua-Kona), chairman of the Senate Health Committee, has proposed a five-year moratorium on the sale and use of glyphosate, a widely used herbicide for agricultural crops and home gardens. His bill would also create a working group to study the health and safety effects of the herbicide.
Monsanto, the biotech company, developed both Roundup — a herbicide with glyphosate — and genetically modified Roundup Ready crops so farmers can use the weedkiller without damaging their crops.
Green, an emergency room doctor, said he does not think he is being premature or alarmist by seeking a moratorium before the health and safety study is completed. "My primary concern is to take the precautionary principle," he said.