Five Maui County residents are looking to gather at least 8,500 signatures for a ballot initiative that would force genetically engineered food growers, such as Monsanto, to "prove that their crops are safe," supporters said.
The initiative, which was filed with the county clerk's office on Friday afternoon, calls for suspension of all "genetically engineered operations and practices" in the county until the companies prove their activities are safe. The initiative says that growers would need to submit an environmental public health impact statement with pesticide uses to the County Council for approval on future growing.
Residents Lorrin Pang, Mark Sheehan, Lei'ohu Ryder, Alika Atay and Bonnie Marsh are behind the effort. The nonprofit Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and the Aina, or SHAKA Movement, supported the initiative.
Bonnie Marsh (from right) and Mark Sheehan speak with Maui County Clerk Danny Mateo on Friday afternoon after turning in a ballot initiative that would force genetically engineered food growers to get a public health environmental impact statement approved by the Maui County Council before planting future crops.
SHAKA Movement photo
"This would be a big drama for (farmers and companies) to continue growing (genetically engineered foods) if this goes into affect," SHAKA member Netra Halperin said Thursday. "Instead of us proving that they're not safe, they will have to. It puts the responsibility on them."
Those behind the initiative now have to obtain 8,500 signatures, or 20 percent of the voters in the last mayoral election, and turn them in to the county clerk's office within the next 60 days to keep the process moving. After the clerk's office has verified the required number of signatures, the initiative is submitted to the County Council for approval.
If the council does not act within 60 days, the item goes on the ballot for voters to decide in the Nov. 4 general election.
"They've got a challenge," County Clerk Danny Mateo said. "It's pretty exciting. I don't remember the last time we've had an initiative attempt."
The initiative, filed under Article 11 of the County Charter, highlights issues over environmental protection, pesticide use, government oversight and cross-contamination of nongenetically engineered crops with genetically engineered ones.
"The rapid development and introduction of genetically engineered organisms, combined with inadequate regulatory oversight at the state and federal levels, have left the citizens of Maui County with significant concerns regarding the long-term safety of genetically engineered operations and practices," the initiative reads. "The Hawaii Department of Agriculture does not have an adequate regulatory structure in place to monitor (growers) or to aid in the understanding of the impacts of these operations and practices on Maui's economy, environment, cultural heritage or public health."
Carol Reimann, community and government affairs manager for Monsanto on Maui, said that she has not seen the specific language of the initiative but believes its "underlying premise" accuses biotech crops of "damaging people's health or the environment."
"That is simply untrue," Reimann said in an email Friday. "The fact is, foods developed through biotechnology are the most well tested and highly regulated foods in history, and there is broad scientific consensus that biotech crops are as safe as any other kind of agricultural crop. In the U.S., biotech crops are regulated by as many as three federal agencies responsible for overseeing the health and safety of people and the environment: the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. All of the biotech crops that Monsanto grows in Hawaii have been reviewed and approved in advance for outdoor planting."
SHAKA spokesman Bruce Douglas contested that assertion, saying that while pesticides associated with genetically engineered operations and practices have been tested and regulated for their use in isolation, "Monsanto mixes together up to 10 different chemicals" for use on its crops.
Douglas credited Pang with coining the term "chemical cocktails" for the mixing of pesticides. Pang is the state Health Department Maui District health officer but was acting as an individual citizen with the initiative.
"The combination is deadly," Douglas said, adding that the bill would force growers to disclose their chemicals.
Another concern is over cross-contamination of nongenetically engineered crops with genetically engineered ones - an issue that has plagued Big Island papayas, initiative supporters say.
Since the the introduction of genetically engineered papayas to Hawaii County, more than 50 percent of nongenetically engineered papayas have been contaminated, the initiative reads. In November, the Hawaii County Council passed a bill that prohibits biotech companies from operating on the Big Island and bans growing any new genetically engineered crops.
It does grandfather in the Big Island's Rainbow papaya, which was developed through biotechnology to stave off the ringspot virus.
While the Maui effort only calls for a temporary ban on genetically engineered crops, Reimann said the concept is "slippery."
"Does it imply we should also stop using automobiles, alcohol, aspirin and many other common products until they are proven safe beyond a doubt?" she asked. "Banning biotech crops based on an unsubstantiated belief that they haven't been proven safe would hamstring a technology that has been a part of our lives for decades and has resulted in significant benefits such as reduced pesticide spraying on farms, decreased risk of crop losses, and lower greenhouse gas emissions."
If the initiative passes, genetically engineered crops that are in midgrowth cycle are allowed to continue through harvest. However, any plantings thereafter without the required approvals would be subject to fines and possible criminal charges. Fines range from $10,000 for first-time violations to $50,000 for three or more.
Supporters of the bill are hosting a news conference and panel discussion to inform residents of the initiative at 7 p.m. Monday in the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's McCoy Studio Theater.
The free event will include presentations by each of the five residents supporting the bill, as well as guest speaker and genetically modified food expert Don Huber.
An open invitation to Monsanto officials for a recorded conversation this weekend was turned down, Douglas said. Although he was disappointed with the company's response, he said he is excited about Monday's event.
"We want the public to have all the facts," he said.
For more information on the event, visit www.shakamovement.org.
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at email@example.com.