HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A potentially powerful coalition of groups demonstrated at the State Capitol Wednesday on opening day of the Legislature, hoping to pressure lawmakers to pass a law controlling use of pesticides near schools.
It's part of the campaign against the heavy use of pesticides by seed companies that do research in Hawaii soil on genetically modified crops and foods.
For the first time, a broad cross-section of environmental and Hawaiian groups came together on the GMO and pesticides issue, hoping to change laws not just in one county, but across the state.
Hundreds of people sang, chanted, gave speeches and held signs at the State Capitol rotunda as the legislature convened, from Native Hawaiian groups to anti-GMO activists wearing chemical suits.
Among the leaders at the rally was Kauai County Council member Gary Hooser.
"It's not just the environmental fringe, it's not just the activists, these are regular people on the street who are concerned about this issue and it's the legislature's responsibility to act on that," Hooser said.
Moloka'i Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte was another leader of the rally.
"We need to come together as environmentalists, and as Hawaiians try and influence this building. The corporations are having way too much influence," said Ritte, a one-time trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
They want lawmakers to approve buffer zones across the state where pesticides cannot be used around schools and nursing homes. The proposal does not have specified distances yet, details will need to be worked out as the measure makes its way through the legislature.
"We know it's an approach that's been used in 33 other states and the industry has been able to comply with those regulations," said Ashley Lukens, the executive director of Hawaii Center For Food Safety, a Honolulu-based group lobbying for passage of the buffer zone law.
"Because a lot of heavy pesticide users share a fence line with our schools, we want to ensure that we can mitigate pesticide drift," Lukens said.
A representative of seed companies Monsanto, Dow and others said they're already being good neighbors by voluntarily complying with pesticide buffer zones around businesses, schools and hospitals on Kauai.
"Conceptually, I think the industry does not have any problems with buffer zones only because we are participating already in the Kauai 'Good Neighbor' program wherein we only not just meet the minimum requirement, we actually bend over backwards and go beyond the requirement," said Bennette Misalucha, executive director of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association.
The voluntary program on Kauai bans pesticide use 100 feet or closer to businesses on the Garden Island and within 500 feet of schools and hospitals.
Environmentalists have said the program, administered by the state Department of Agriculture, does not go far enough because it does not require companies to disclose how much and what type of pesticides they are using.
Misalucha cautioned that statewide buffer zones may have unintended consequences for small farmers.
"They may not have the resources nor the time to be able to comply with some of those," Misalucha said.
Supporters of buffer zones, such as Lukens of The Hawaii Center for Food Safety, said the proposal only targets heavy users of pesticides such as the seed companies, not small farmers who might use pesticides every once in a while.
Misalucha said the seed companies have been "good neighbors" for more than 50 years and employ more than 4,000 people. She noted that agriculture uses only 25 percent of the "restricted use pesticide" in Hawaii.
The real question is how eager legislative leaders are to tackle this issue.
Senate President Donna Kim didn't mention GMOs at all in her speech and House Speaker Joe Souki said the GMO issue won't go away and he said lawmakers should take action but he didn't specify what should be done.
On background, state lawmakers said they expect debate on the buffer zone proposal, but it seems to be gaining momentum because politicians will be hard-pressed to vote against protecting school children from heavy pesticides.
The seed company representatives said they don't have a formal position on the buffer zone proposal yet saying the "devil is in the details" and they will need to see specifics first.
Others who spoke at the rally included internationally known environmental activist Vandana Shiva from India.
"What could be more basic to freedom than food freedom and food democracy?" Shiva asked the crowd from the stage.
"We have a duty to take care of the future. Once again, we give notice to Monsanto and say that duty you cannot interfere with. We will not be stopped," Shiva said.