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How Hawaii's laws reach across the ocean

By Holly Martin

A debate rages around genetically modified crops in Hawaii, and the outcome could very well affect farms across the High Plains and Midwest.

Hawaii has become the testing ground for a number of big seed companies, including Syngenta, Monsanto, and DuPont, just to name a few. In fact, the seed crop business is big in the Aloha State. Currently, 45 seed crop companies are operating in Hawaii. The islands have distinct advantage over the mainland in that three corn crops a year can be grown due to the mild weather, therefore more rapidly advancing the progress of breeding programs.

According to a Hawaii Farm Bureau study, the industry is the largest and fastest growing agricultural commodity in the state, contributing 34 percent of all total value of Hawaii agricultural crops. The industry employs nearly 1,400 people, growing nearly 30 percent from 2006 to 2012, in a state where job growth as a whole dropped nearly 10 percent.

But the industry’s significance extends over 4,000 miles to the northeast. Mark Phillipson, who is president of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association and an executive with Syngenta was quoted in the New York Times saying, “Almost any corn seed sold in the U.S. touches Hawaii somewhere” in its development.

Consequently, it would benefit corn farmers on the mainland to closely watch what is developing in Hawaii. Kauai County Council recently passed a bill that would require reporting of pesticide use, making regulations even tighter than what is already implemented by the state and national governments. A bill on the main island of Hawaii, will prevent the cultivation of genetically modified crops altogether.

On Kauai, the community members concerns seem to be centered around the chemicals being applied to the genetically modified crops. They want notification of what types of chemicals are applied and when.

The companies argue that disclosing the information could mean sharing proprietary information. But set that aside and think of your chemical application plan for your corn crop in 2014. Just go ahead and write down what days you will be spraying, the amount and what chemical. What? That’s impossible because you can’t decide until the problems surface, or until the wind dies down, or until the crop reaches a certain stage? Exactly.

The seed companies are following all regulations set forth on a state and national level. But local governments are trying to force themselves into the mix. What started as a debate against genetically modified crops, is now morphed into proposed regulations that seek to control chemical applications.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather see these companies do their crop development in the United States than foreign countries. But try to push unnecessary regulations on them and they will leave faster than an ocean wave washes away their tracks in the Hawaiian sand.

The real problem is people who don’t understand trying to regulate things they know very little about. And what they do know, can not be persuaded by silly things like current scientific data.

Critics of the seed companies and supporters of regulation have cited increase cancer in Kauai, where the largest concentration of the seed crop farms exist. In response, the Hawaii State Department of Health released a report that said in fact, the opposite was true: cancer rates on the island were lower than the rest of the state.

And in an interesting twist, the bill that bans genetically modified crops on the main Hawaiian island had to be modified so that it did not include papaya, a crop that is almost entirely genetically modified to a virus that nearly wiped out the crop 20 years ago.

In other words, Hawaiians are comfortable with GM crops when it hits close to home. When they affect a crop that hits in the Midwest, they become hypocritical.

Somehow, reason needs to reign. If it doesn’t, a few thousand people will lose their jobs in Hawaii and the progress made in crop genetic development will slow significantly.

Holly Martin can be reached by phone at 1-800-452-7171, ext. 1806, or by email at hmartin@hpj.com.

Date: 10/28/2013

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