WAILUKU - Upward of 500 jobs and millions of tax dollars could be lost if a ballot initiative to place a moratorium on the cultivation of genetically engineered organisms either passes the Maui County Council or is ratified by voters in the Nov. 4 general election, officials of two Maui County seed companies said.
"If it passes, a ban could have a devastating effect on our operations, but more importantly is the potential loss of jobs for employees," Carol Reimann, community and government affairs manager for Monsanto on Maui, said in an email.
The company with operations on Maui and Molokai has 540 employees. In 2013, tax liabilities for the agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology company in the county were $3.5 million.
Adolph Helm, a project manager for Mycogen Seeds on Molokai, expressed a similar sentiment. The company, an affiliate of Dow AgroSciences, employs more than 90 people and contributes more than $400,000 in sales, use and property taxes to the local economy.
If the initiative passes, it would have a "significant impact on our operations on Molokai," Helm said in an email Monday.
Reimann and Helm were both addressing the initiative that calls for the suspension of all "genetically engineered operations and practices" in Maui County until companies prove the activity is safe, which would be done by submitting an environmental public health impact statement to the Maui County Council for approval. The initiative was spearheaded by the nonprofit SHAKA Movement. SHAKA stands for Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and the Aina.
The Maui County Council's Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee on Monday afternoon and through the evening heard testimony on the initiative in Council Chambers and via telephone from Molokai. About two hours into the testimony, at least 200 people on Maui and Molokai had signed up to testify. Several police officers were stationed around the chamber; firefighters were present to make sure the crowd did not exceed safety limits for the room.
Committee Chairman Riki Hokama said at the beginning of the meeting that he expected to hear all testimony Monday with the committee deliberations beginning this morning.
According to the Maui County Charter, the council has 60 days, or until Aug. 5, to act on the proposed ordinance. The clock began June 6, when the county clerk deemed that enough valid signatures had been obtained by SHAKA for the petition to be formally submitted to the County Council. SHAKA gathered 9,062 valid signatures, surpassing the 8,465 needed.
If the council does not adopt the ordinance within 60 days, it will be placed on the general election ballot Nov. 4 for consideration by the electorate.
While seed companies and their employees worry about losing business and losing their jobs, those in favor of the initiative worry about the workers' and public's health.
"Are we always wiling to trade off our health? Our lives? For low wages now?," said SHAKA official Mark Sheehan in an email. "Are those company profits worth the risk to our aina and our keiki? No way."
Sheehan said that the seed companies should find temporary work for their workers if the initiative is passed and studies mandated. If studies show that their crops and chemicals used are harmless, "then no problem."
"Money is never worth the trade-off" between health and what the government and the economy may receive in taxes and other benefits from the seed companies, he said.
Another SHAKA official, Bruce Douglas, told the council committee Monday that SHAKA is looking at ways to help workers who may be displaced if the initiative passes. SHAKA officials currently are looking into job possibilities for displaced employees and establishing a database of those willing to offer work to those people.
SHAKA also is seeking out land for workers to lease and to farm on their own, Douglas said.
Some of those favoring the anti-GMO measure also feel for the workers.
Guy Hanohano Naehu, a fishpond operator from Molokai, said that there is "so much aloha" for the workers of the seed companies. "The fight is not with you," he said at Monday's hearing.
Then he talked about how seed company fields are near a school and how the company's agricultural practices can disturb Molokai's rural living-off-the-land lifestyle.
"Think about our aina. Think about our children. Think about our future," he said.
Other testifiers in favor of the initiative cited concerns about health risks, pesticides contaminating the environment, plant resistance to pesticides and contamination between GMO crops and other plants in the environment.
Besides citing the business and job losses, the opponents of the measure said that pesticides used already are heavily regulated and that the genetically modified crops have been a part of farming for years.
"The moratorium is making mountains out of molehills," Ken Findeisen of Hawaii Grower Products said.
The owner of the horticulture supply company said that the pesticides being used have been widely tested. Governmental agencies, such as the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, and their inspectors check on farms, which are punished if rules are not followed, he said.
Sally V. Irwin, a plant geneticist and professor for the University of Hawaii Maui College, said in written testimony that plant breeding, chemical mutagenesis (the random or specific mutation of cloned DNA) and irradiation all cause genetic changes to crops and none of these methods are regulated or tested for unintentional changes.
"These methods have been used long before the precise and highly tested and regulated development of GE (genetically engineered) crops and can be found throughout all types of farming including organic and traditional," she wrote.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
***CORRECTION: In her written testimony to a Maui County Council committee regarding an initiative to place a moratorium on the cultivation of genetically engineered organisms in Maui County, Sally Irwin, a plant geneticist and professor for the University of Hawaii Maui College, referred to plant modification processes that expose plant seeds to either chemicals or irradiation to induce random mutations in the DNA of the seed. A story that began on Page A1 on Tuesday and continued to Page A4 contained an incorrect depiction of the process.
The Maui News apologizes for the error.