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What Happens When We Stop Listening to Monsanto

February 9th, 2016
By Ashley Lukens, Director, Hawai‘i Center for Food Safety
Center for Food Safety

Over the past week, two important food justice bills were granted hearings in the Hawai‘i State House. One requires companies like Monsanto and Dow Chemical to disclose their pesticide use on the islands, while the other creates a buffer-zone pilot program aimed at minimizing pesticide spraying near schools. Although the future of these bills is unknown, from where I’m sitting, the ground we’re gaining is clear. Today, I call victory for the families of Hawai‘i.

Today’s hearing on buffer zones brought together the Departments of Education, Agriculture and Health to discuss the state’s pesticide regulations. This has never happened before in a public setting. The participation of each agency helped to firmly establish that there are major regulatory gaps that leave children and school faculty vulnerable to unintended pesticide exposure at Hawai‘i schools. These regulatory gaps include:

  • The failure of the Department of Health to regularly monitor air, water, soils and surfaces for pesticides applied near sensitive areas, like schools.
  • The failure of the Department of Agriculture to provide the Department of Health with timely and comprehensive pesticides sale and use data.
  • The failure of the Departments of Health and Agriculture to sufficiently engage with the Department of Education regarding the concerns of faculty, students and families about pesticide drift and exposure on and near school campuses.

Unlike previous hearings, the pesticide-seed industry’s tired talking points held no traction. They said: The Environmental Protection Agency sufficiently regulates pesticides,” “Pesticide labels provide sufficient protection,”  “Residential use of pesticides poses a greater risk than industrial agricultural use…”  And the committees weren’t buying it.

Similarly, the industry’s claims that buffer zones “hurt farmers” did not hold water. Differentiating the demands of the agrichemical industry from the needs of local farmers is incredibly important to our work because it clarifies that when they say “right to farm,” what they are actually fighting for is a “right to spray.” 

Why the shift in tone? It was the voices of community members, mothers like Colleen Chapman of Waialua and Malia Chun of Kekaha, that captured committee members’ attention. Facing daily threats of pesticide drift in their homes and communities, these women courageously shared their stories in a room full of industry representatives. 

Further, Representative Cynthia Thielen posed powerful questions to the Departments of Health and Education. Her questions harkened back to efforts to ban smoking on school campuses, and suggested that the fight against “Big Pesticide” is similar to the decades-old fight against Big Tobacco. Just like Big Tobacco, Big Pesticide constantly refers to industry-funded studies to illustrate that the pesticides they produce and apply are “safe” and adequately regulated.

In a strong statement to the Department of Education, Representative Thielen asked "Why are you not at the forefront of creating a buffer zone around our children in the schools? I would think you would be up here, or your Director or Superintendent would be up at the table, saying, 'there is enough evidence out there that makes us question the health impacts to our children.' I’d like you to take that back to them and I'd like to have you join those of us that have sponsored this bill and those of us that support this measure to protect our youngsters.” 

Up until now, Monsanto’s talking points have diverted public conversation away from peer-reviewed medical and scientific literature about the health impacts of pesticides and what the appropriate regulatory framework should be in light of this science. But that didn’t happen today. Today legislators stopped listening to Monsanto and their cadre of lobbyists, and the conversation stayed focused on what the state must do to protect our keiki’s health.

Regardless of whether the bill ultimately passes, today I saw the impact of our community organizing and education at work. Legislators are asking the right questions of the industry, and publicly acknowledging the validity of our concerns about pesticides and the genetically engineered (GE) seed industry in Hawai‘i.

With nearly 10,000 Hawai‘i members, we need your continued support to keep the pressure on and stop business-as-usual at the State Legislature. Here are four ways you can help right now:

1. Donate $10 to support our grassroots advocacy program. This will help us fund flights for neighbor island community members, research and bill tracking, and our continued coverage of hearings.

2. Support mandatory pesticide disclosure and pesticide buffer zones around Hawai‘i schools.

3. Sign up for policy updates and action alerts! Continue testifying in support of pesticide disclosure, buffer zones and other policies.

4. Share video clips from hearings on social media! Support independent media and counteract the industry’s silencing of the mainstream media on this issue. 

As a movement, we must keep in mind that the policy process, especially when it involves passing new laws, is incredibly difficult. It takes time. I call this, “playing the long game,” and together, we’re doing an excellent job.  In times like this I often turn to those who have fought before us – to see the future from their perspective. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Together, in time, we will prevail. 

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