By Alan McNarie
State legislators don’t usually openly criticize their colleagues. But Senator Josh Green (D—Kona, Ka`u) had had it with Sen. Malama Solomon (D—Hilo, Hamakua, Kohala, Kona).
“You aren’t even on this committee, Malama,” he told her. “You could at least be a decent human being.”
“Senator Solomon was being terribly disrespectful to several testifiers before my committee and I don’t tolerate anyone being treated in that way, whether they agree or disagree with a bill before the committee,” Green told the Chronicle. “I welcome colleagues who don’t serve on the committee to participate in debate, but I draw the line when anyone is cruel to other people. That was the case with Solomon that day.”
The occasion was a hearing on a bill to mandate labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. But the exchange was emblematic of a deeper rift between the island’s legislators. That split goes far beyond the GMO debate: at stake is the county’s authority over anything that’s allowed on agricultural lands, including biofuels, geothermal energy, solar and wind facilities, farm retail stores and tourism enterprises.
Last year, under heavy public pressure, Hawai`i County and Kauai County both passed ordinances restricting the planting of genetically modified organisms. But the chemical/GMO industry (many of the companies involved, most notably Monsanto, sell both pesticides and genetically modified seed designed to use with them) is pushing back. Some of the companies involved are suing Kauai County over its ordinance, and an anonymous papaya farmer is suing the County of Hawai`i over its imposition of its new $100 registration fee for growing GM papaya. The GMO companies have also been investing heavily in the state legislature. In addition to tens of thousands in direct donations to legislators’ campaign funds, the GMO interests have hired several lobbyists to push their case at the capital—including Hawaii’s two biggest lobbying firms, those of George A. “Red” Morris and John Radcliffe.
One result of this state-level pressure has been a series of proposed laws that proponents characterize as “right to farm” or “freedom to farm” bills. Most of these, including Senate Bills 110 and 3058, House Bill 2506 and their companion bills, have included language similar to this, from SBs 110 and 3058: “The right of farmers and ranchers to engage in modern farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this State. No law, ordinance, or resolution of any unit of local government shall be enacted that abridges the right of farmers and ranchers to employ agricultural technology, modern livestock production, and ranching practices not prohibited by federal or state law, rules, or regulations.”
Hawai`i isn’t alone. Exactly the same language has appeared in bills or proposed constitutional amendments in other states including North Dakota, Oklahoma, Missouri and Delaware. The conservative think tank ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) is pushing a piece of “model legislation” that would prohibit “enactment or enforcement of local measures to regulate agricultural seed, flower seed and vegetable seed or products of agricultural seed, flower seed and vegetable seed”—essentially barring the counties from regulating any kind of agriculture, since even meat and milk are dependent on animal feed produced from plants. Another model ALEC resolution specifically “supports activity by state governments to safeguard against local governments regulating agriculture biotechnology.”
So far, most of the Hawai`i bills have been either killed or deferred in the face of heavy public opposition. But as of the deadline for this report, at least one remained alive. SB 2777 would amend current agricultural zoning laws by stating that the uses currently allowed by those laws within agricultural zones “shall be permitted without further limitations or restrictions.” As of the Chronicle’s deadline, it had passed a Senate floor vote and had crossed over to the House, where its fate may rest on whether Agriculture Chair Rep. Jessica Wooley, who so far has opposed “right to farm” bills, grants it a hearing. But it also may depend on when Wooley leaves office. Governor Gov. Neil Abercrombie recently appointed her to head the state Office of Environmental Quality Control.
The “Right to Farm” movement has been around since at least the 1960s, when stories began circulating about such incidents as a pig farmer who was sued out of business by residents of a new subdivision nearby. Hawai`i itself has seen more than its share of encroachment on ag land by developers. But opponents of “right to farm” bills have increasingly complained that the movement has been hijacked by agribusiness corporations fighting legitimate health and safety concerns.
Kauai Councilmember Gary Hooser has been following the debate over HB2777. “I think this bill started out to help a specific person on the North Shore of Oahu who wants to expand his retail farm outlet and the bill limiting him to 500 square feet,” he wrote in a recent op-ed piece. “This bill takes away the authority of the city and county to do that, but it also takes away the ability of all counties to regulate anything on agricultural lands. The impact is statewide and it’s very, very broad.”
Sen. Josh Green agrees. “I support Kauai and Big Island’s ordinances and believe in local control of their policy and will oppose any bill that threatens their autonomy—including SB 2777,” he told the Chronicle.
Sen. Russell Ruderman (D.—Puna), was the only senator to vote against the bill at its only committee hearing, before a hastily convened joint session of the Senate Agriculture, Public Safety and Water and Land Committees—even though, as Ruderman noted, over 300 people testified against the measure and only a handful, including representatives of the Farm Bureau and Cattlemen’s Council and “one or two individuals” testified in support.
“It was introduced at the very last minute” and “very hidden from the public view,” according to Ruderman.
Even the Attorney General’s office and the Board of Agriculture weighed in against the bill.
“If the Legislature did not intend to limit the zoning authority of the counties, we recommend that you delete the phrase ‘without further limitations or restrictions,’” wrote the AG’s office, in part.
“The uses of agricultural land in Section 205-2(d) that are subject to the amendment include wind energy, biofuel production, solar energy facilities, agricultural tourism and activities, open area recreational facilities, geothermal resources development, and agricultural based commercial operations. Input from the counties should be solicited prior to the passage of this bill,” wrote Board of Agriculture Chair Scott Enright.
But Hawaii Farm Bureau President Chris Manfredi favored the bill because he thought it would bring “some certainty to the regulatory framework established by government. This measure addresses controllable risks and creates some stability in an area that is often blown by political winds.”
Rep. Clifton Tsuji (D—Hilo, Keaukaha, Pana`ewa, Waiakea) made the most of the support expressed, and called for more.
“I note that public’s testimonies submitted to the Senate’s hearing were split,” he e-mailed the Chronicle. “Should this Bill be scheduled for a public hearing in the House, I would hope testimony would also come from small farmers. I support legislation encouraging ag sustainability in Hawaii. I support SB2777 with possible amendments.”
In this debate, Green and Ruderman are clearly on one side of the rift. Rep. Nicole Lowen (D—Honokahau, Kailua-Kona, Holualoa, Kalaoa) also favors the County’s GMO ordinance and told the Chronicle, “I haven’t supported any bills at the State level that would preempt County home rule on this issue.”
But most of the Hawai`i Island delegation is clearly on the other side. HB 2506, for instance, one of the first “right to farm” bills introduced this session, was co-sponsored by Tsuji, Cindy Evans (D—N. Kona, N. Kohala, S. Kohala), Faye Hanohano (D—Puna), Richard Onishi (D—Hilo, Upper Puna) and Mark Nakashima (D—Hamakua, N. Hilo, S. Hilo). Solomon co-sponsored SBs 3058 and 2777 in the Senate. Onishi co-sponsored HB 2467, SB 2777’s companion bill.
The only Big Island legislators who have not weighed in actively on the issue are Sen. Gilbert Kahele (D—Hilo) and new Abercrombie appointee Rep. Richard Creagan (D—Na`alehu, Ocean View, Kealakekua, Kailua-Kona).
The divide also appears in the legislators’ campaign spending sources. The majority of Big Island legislators—and most of the pro-‘right to farm” lawmakers—have accepted campaign donations from agribusiness and biotech firms.
Take Solomon, for instance. Her Campaign Spending Commission reports appear to have some discrepancies—the cumulative totals for some donations appear to be off—but as best the Chronicle could determine, she has received at least $3,750 from agrochemical/seed companies since and their executives since January of 2010. She’s also gotten at least $1675 from beef and ranch interests (Many large ranchers also favor “right to farm” bills).
Nakashima has received at least $700 from Monsanto and Genentech. Kahele has accepted at least $2,000 from Syngenta, Dupont, Monsanto, and Monsanto executive Frederick Perlak. And then there’s Tsuji, a long-time booster of the biotech industry. Again, there are some discrepancies in his campaign reports, but it appears that he’s collected at least $3,000 from Monsanto alone since January of 2010—plus another $500 each from Dupont and Syngenta.
But those totals may just be the tip of the iceberg.
The anti-GMO group Babes against Biotech has published an on-line analysis of legislators’ financial ties with not only the biotech companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, Dupont and Genentech, but also of their associated lobbyists and trade organizations. “Super-lobbyists” John Radcliffe and G.A. “Red” Morris, especially, have donated thousands to Big Island lawmakers, and tens of thousands to their O`ahu counterparts.
In general, BAB’s findings suggest a strong correlation between GMO lobbyist contributions and legislators’ voting records. They also suggest some connections that the company donations alone don’t make; Evans, for instance, took no direct donations from biotech companies, but BAB found nearly $4,000 contributed to her election from Morris and Radcliffe.
But Morris and Radcliffe’s donations don’t always translate into votes: the BAB analysis ranks Green, for instance, as “No. 5 among top 10 most GMO funded Senators” because of money accepted from lobbyists, but he took no money from the biotech firms themselves; in addition to his stands against “right to farm” bills, he sponsored unsuccessful bills to ban glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide) and to label GM food products. And because some lobbyists work for multiple interests and don’t disclose where they got their money, tracking it back to specific interests is impossible.
“Lobbyists across the country including in Hawai`i have a great deal of influence on issues like GMOs, and Monsanto’s lobbyists are very tough with a lot of influence,” Green told the Chronicle. “If they weren’t here we’d be more likely to have an open debate on this issue. The people deserve better.”
“We’ve asked the legislators to please stop taking money from these lobbyists. They should get money directly from corporations,” said Nomi Carmona, who compiled the BAB list.
BAB gave perfect scores for no GMO money to Ruderman and Lowen. The organization didn’t rate Hanohano, who received $200 from a ranch organization and several hundred dollars from Radcliffe and Morris, but no direct contributions from biotech firms.
As of the Chronicle’s deadline, Solomon had not responded to our queries. In fact, the only pro-“right to farm” legislator to reply was Tsuji.
Babes against Biotech’s GMO campaign funding analyses can be viewed at the URLS below:
State House & Senate:
Governor Neil Abercrombie:
Alan McNarie is the newly named contributing editor of Big Island Chronicle. He has been reporting on Big Island issues for two decades. As Senior Contributing Writer, then Senior Contributing Editor at Ka’u Landing and its successor the Hawaii Island Journal, McNarie became known for in-depth investigative stories on such issues as the proposed Ka’u prison, the continuing East Hawai’i garbage crisis, the problems with Puna Geothermal and the influence of outside money on local elections. He’s also done investigative reporting for Honolulu Weekly, Big Island Weekly and the Hawaii Independent, and feature stories for Hana Hou and Ke Ola. He’s published a few dozen poems and one novel, Yeshua, which won the Editor’s Book Award in 1991.