By Christopher D'Angelo
Lihue, Hawaii (Reuters) - Lawmakers on the tropical island of Kauai, Hawaii, on Wednesday approved a hotly contested measure aimed at reining in widespread pesticide use by companies testing new genetically modified crops on the island.
The Kauai County Council passed the bill by a vote of six to one after months of protests by islanders and mainland U.S. groups who wanted to see a range of broad controls on the global agrichemical companies that have found the island's tropical climate ideal for year-round testing of new biotech crops.
The vote on Kauai came amid a global backlash against the spread of genetically-modified organisms in food and feed(GMO). Critics claim they contribute to greater pesticide use, environmental damage and health concerns for people and animals. But the industry says they are crucial for increasing global food production and improving environmental sustainability.
"This victory is an amazing credit to the people of Kauai who stood up to massive pressure from the GMO companies and won their right to know about pesticides and GMOs in their community," said Charles Margulis, a spokesman for the California-based Center for Environmental Health, which supported the bill.
Known as Hawaii's "Garden Isle," Kauai's landscape has become fertile ground for testing of new crops by DuPont Pioneer, Syngenta, BASF, and Dow AgroSciences, which together have staked out work on an estimated 15,000 acres on the isolated Hawaiian island.
DuPont, which fought to defeat the bill, was disappointed it passed, and may sue to block its implementation, said spokesman Josh St. Peters.
"We believe it to be bad policy - and the kind of regulation that should remain at the state and federal level, where policy makers and agencies are already empowered with oversight of our industry," he said. "We believe that the bill is not legally defensible and we continue to evaluate all of our business and legal options."
Kauai is the fourth largest of the main Hawaiian Islands and has a land area of 562.3 square miles and a population of about 67,000.
Many on the island have blamed health problems and pollution on what they say is excessive use of pesticides as the companies test a range of genetically altered crops. In early September, more than 3,000 islanders took to the streets of Lihue with signs and banners, and chanting "Pass the Bill."
More than 80 people lined up to offer testimony to the council meeting, which started on Tuesday morning but lasted until 3:30 a.m. local time on Wednesday. Only four people testified against the bill, the rest asked for its passage.
Early versions of the measure introduced in June prohibited open-air testing of experimental pesticides and genetically modified crops, established a permitting process for the industry and placed a temporary moratorium on the expansion of GMO crop test fields.
"The people in my community have asked for help," Kauai County Councilman Gary Hooser, who introduced the bill, said on Tuesday. "People are concerned."
In an attempt to forge compromise last month, Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie proposed that pesticide and genetically engineered seed corporations be allowed to voluntarily disclose pesticide use.
The version of the bill that passed late Tuesday was stripped of some of its tougher conditions and now requires the agricultural companies to disclose the presence and use of genetically modified crops and pesticides; establishes buffer zones around schools, hospitals, homes and other areas, and requires the county to conduct a study on the health and environmental impacts of the industry.
Concerns about pesticide use on the island have been mounting in recent years and some allege health problems, including increased rates of cancer, are tied to the farm chemicals on the experimental crop fields.
But testifying at the hearing, BASF representative Kirby Kester said that passage of the bill was unwarranted because there is no evidence the companies are doing any harm.
And prior to the meeting, Mark Phillipson, spokesman for Syngenta Hawaii, said the industry was committed to a safe environment.
"We abide by high standards to create a safe environment for our workers, our neighbors and the community," Phillipson said.
A spokesman for Dow could not immediately be reached for comment.
(Reporting and writing by Carey Gillam in Kansas City and reporting by Christopher D'Angelo in Kauai; Editing by Alden Bentley)