Lawmakers attend agricultural summit amid local concerns

Honolulu Star Advertiser - January 9, 2017
Sophie Cocke

While members of Hawaii’s House Finance Committee were debating the upcoming budget for the Department of Agriculture during a hearing at the state Capitol on Friday, key lawmakers with oversight over agricultural policy were 4,000 miles away in Baton Rouge, La., at an ag conference sponsored and paid for by major corporations, including biotech giants Dow AgroSciences, Monsanto and Syngenta, which grow seed corn and conduct crop trials in Hawaii.

The annual Legislative Agriculture Chairs Summit is an invitation-only event that includes about 150 state lawmakers from across the country. The agenda includes sessions on topics such as aquaculture, invasive species, water quality and how to implement the Food Safety and Modernization Act which are moderated by a mix of university scientists, government officials, trade group representatives and executives at private companies.

While the conference agenda appears neutral enough, locally the summit is raising concerns about corporate influence over state lawmakers, especially as various advocacy and community groups are gearing up for a major push this legislative session to increase regulations on the cultivation of genetically modified crops and agricultural pesticide spraying.

“I think it’s not shocking that the industry is able to deploy their dollars in many different ways in order to kind of build both an agenda that supports the deregulation of agriculture and pesticide use, and also the continued lack of regulation around genetic engineering and biotechnology in ag,” said Ashley Lukens, director of the Hawaii Center for Food Safety, which has been a critic of genetically engineered food. “They do that through direct lobbying, through campaign contributions, through these kinds of educational events, in session and out of session. So this is just another iteration of that fundamental dynamic.”

The conference, which wrapped up Sunday, covered the lawmakers’ hotel rooms at the Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center, meals and registration fees, and, if funds were available and needed, their airfare. While the conference’s brochure says these costs are picked up by “an educational non-profit run by state and provincial legislators,” it’s actually private companies who cover much of these costs.

“In order to continue to support attendance, we must have your support,” according to the sponsorship page of the conference’s website. “Contributions from the private sector are absolutely crucial to accomplishing this program.”

Sponsors of the event get to vote on conference resolutions and board members, advertise at the summit and help plan the agenda, according to the conference’s website.

There are several tiers of sponsorship. The highest level is that of “Visionary,” which requires a $10,000 fee and allows a private company “special recognition on all signage and a display area,” as well as recognition at a reception or a meal.

This year’s “Visionary” sponsors included Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, ADM, which produces food ingredients and animal feed, and J.R. Simplot Co., an agribusiness. There are dozens of other private companies and trade groups with lower-level sponsorships, such as Tyson and Hormel Foods.

Hawaii House members who attended the summit included Rep. Richard Creagan, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Lynn DeCoite, the committee’s vice chairwoman, Rep. Cedric Gates, a member of the Agriculture Committee, and Rep. Mark Hashem, according to the conference’s website and travel authorization forms filed with the House clerk’s office.

Rep. Ryan Yamane, chairman of the House Water and Land Committee, is also listed on the conference’s website as attending, but there was not a travel authorization form for him on file with the House clerk’s office. Yamane didn’t respond to an email asking whether he attended the conference.

On the Senate side, Sen. Mike Gabbard, chairman of the Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee; Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, vice chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee; and Sen. Clarence Nishihara are listed on the conference website as attending the event.

A number of lawmakers contacted by email or phone didn’t respond to questions. Reached by cellphone Friday, Nishihara and Gates both said they would call back but never did.

However, Gabbard provided an update from the conference Saturday noting that he was “freezing my okole off.” It was 28 degrees and rainy in Baton Rouge.

Gabbard said this was the second year in a row that he had attended the conference and that both trips had been approved by the Senate president and state Ethics Commission. He said at last year’s conference there was a lot of discussion about hemp and marijuana, which are big topics in Hawaii, and this year there are sessions on food safety, water quality, energy and agriculture, and invasive and endangered species that he was finding interesting.

“To be honest, I would have liked to see more sponsors from the sustainable/organic ag sector. However, even without that balance, I still feel this conference is worth my attendance,” he said by email.

“As chair of (the Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee), it’s my role to meet and hear from all sectors of ag. I’ve been visiting farms all over the state to prep for the 2017 session. I’ve seen farms that practice Korean natural farming, organic, conventional, and biotech farming. In the end, my thinking is that we should be moving in the direction of sustainable ag. However, we’re not there yet as a state or nation.”

Gabbard said corporate interests at the conference would not unduly influence his decision-making on ag policy at the Legislature. He said his primary goal is to move Hawaii forward on doubling the state’s local food production.

Carolyn Orr, executive secretary of State Agriculture and Rural Leaders, the nonprofit conference organizer, defended the summit, saying that zero lobbying takes place at the conference.

She said there are only three private industry members on the board out of a total of 17 members and there is never an employee or a sponsor on the agenda. While she acknowledged that industry members help pay legislators’ expenses, she said state and provincial legislatures also help cover costs.

“We have heard how to grow our young farmers and looked at climate change. We have shared best practices on water quality and water conservation and food safety,” Orr said by email. “I do not believe you will find anything on our agenda that will provide influence and there is no entertainment provided, or even time for it. We are in education sessions from arrival to departure.”

“I think you should be impressed that your legislators are willing to fly this far to bad weather to learn how to better their community,” she continued.

Lukens, from the Hawaii Center for Food Safety, said she didn’t necessarily oppose Hawaii lawmakers attending the conference but that they should let the public know about it.

“There are really progressive legislators that attend some of the meetings, and they serve as like canaries in the coal mines and really bring the public into those meetings and help demystify what is happening in the backrooms of our political system,” she said.