Move past Bill 2491 to era in which all farmers can prosper

In 10 days, the County Council will take up a resolution to correct the serious public policy error made with enactment of Bill 2491, the 2013 anti-GMO measure later repurposed as pesticide legislation.

As is now well-known, federal courts at both trial and appellate levels ruled that Bill 2491 conflicted with state law, which grants the state of Hawaii the power to regulate both GMOs and pesticides.

In response, County Council Chair Mel Rapozo and Vice Chair Ross Kagawa have advocated repeal of Bill 2491. They make the simple argument that because federal courts have invalidated it and its proponents clearly do not plan to pursue further appeals, there is no earthly reason for this bad law to remain on the books.

Of course, the council should proceed with repeal, as quickly as possible. Bill 2491’s most diehard supporters contend that repeal would capitulate to politics as usual. In fact, repeal simply recognizes reality: Kauai County was and is powerless to enact such an ordinance.

As it happened, within the last couple of weeks, the state of Hawaii announced a series of steps to implement some of the concepts included in Bill 2491 as relates to pesticides — including enhanced inspection and evaluation of buffer zones. There can be no doubt that these long overdue actions by the state were motivated in part by the anti-GMO ruckus in Hawaii, Maui and Kauai counties. I will give the anti-GMO/pesticide advocates that much credit.

But there is an even more important reason for repeal on our island: Bill 2491 has become a cancer on the county that must be excised so a process of healing, which I believe has already begun, can continue.

This means that a rational concept of agriculture on Kauai must be planted, driven by the belief that farming is a multi-faceted activity based on a diversity of approaches and a holistic view of how to put food on all of our tables.

Farming is a blend of art and science. In particular, the science part of it realizes that simplistic fears of GMO crops lack factual justification. The science part also realizes that some pesticide use is a necessary aspect of farming on anything approaching a commercial scale. When sugar was king in Hawaii, industrial farming techniques were commonplace, including pesticide use. Notwith- standing, public health statistics say Hawaii’s kupuna are the healthiest in the nation.

With sugar now gone, Kauai’s future as an agricultural provider depends on taking farming to scale in a way that farmers of all types — including conventional, organic and GMO seed companies and even GMO crops grown on island — can all contribute to the food supply chain. And yes, seed companies produce seeds that end up being grown into crops. Hence, they are part of this equation.

As a county, we have the ability and legal power to use existing and new zoning ordinances to create an economic climate more hospitable to diverse agriculture. We have the ability to do a better job of ensuring water supplies adequate to sustain Kauai farms.

In that regard, Kauai has it within its power to work to maximize the symbiotic relationship between agriculture and electricity generation, since the need for hydro power began as a vital adjunct to growing sugar. We have the ability to discourage (and even prohibit) the exploitation of agricultural lands by rich absentee owners — masquerading as “gentleman farmers” — for whom farming is a hoax to build elaborate vacation homes on substantial acreage.

We have the ability to tweak our property tax structure to encourage working farms that actually produce food for public distribution. We need better technical assistance for farmers and better ways of helping them keep the costs of everything they use — from tractors to soil additives — as low as possible. As a county, we have the ability to work with and, if necessary, pressure large land owners, whose holdings are a legacy of the old sugar days, to be more supportive of smaller scale, though still commercially viable, farming.

Like it or not, ours is a capitalist economy, and if there is not enough ability to make money farming, new farmers will not take up the challenge on Kauai, or anywhere else.

If these concepts are embraced by the County Council and the community, Kauai has the ability to realize a scale of agriculture perhaps as great as Oahu, where farms of many different types coexist peacefully.

In 2015, a fascinating report emerged from Hawaii Department of Agriculture that paints a baseline picture of agriculture on each island. It shows that Kauai has 21,300 acres under cultivation to grow crops and 41,934 acres of pasture land. It is no coincidence that beef and pork production have quietly become staples of Kauai agriculture.

Unlike Oahu, Kauai does not face pressures of urbanization anywhere near the insatiable appetite of Honolulu to take over agriculture land. We have plenty of ag land, but existing zoning and economic conditions still make it difficult for farmers to get established and earn a living.

Farming people I’ve spoken to make it clear that we might have better spent the last four years talking about adding a slaughterhouse to make the island’s meat production more efficient. Instead, unfortunately, we have been preoccupied with GMOs and pesticides used within the confines of existing federal and state regulations.

It’s true that the large GMO seed companies account for the largest amount of crop cultivation — more than 13,000 acres. But we have a coffee industry that is quickly becoming the stuff of legend and everything else from banana to taro cultivation.

There is one major rub to all of this — and it’s not the county or state government, though each could do a far better job of encouraging diverse agriculture on Kauai. The rub is it’s really hard to find people willing to do the farming.

As the report noted: “The challenges lie in finding farmers and marketable crops that match the terrain and soil conditions.”

So, County Council, on Jan. 12 you will hold a public hearing to repeal Bill 2491. No doubt, some of the same emotional, anecdotal pleas that formed a disproportionate part of the support base for Bill 2491 will once again resurface.

But the council should not let that detract from the urgent priority before it. We must rid ourselves of the mantle of Bill 2491 and move on to an era of Kauai agriculture in which all farmers can prosper.

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Allan Parachini is a former journalist and PR executive. He is a Kilauea resident.

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