By Derrick DePledge
Three state Senate committees on Thursday agreed to significantly narrow a bill meant to help farmers create retail options for their products on agricultural land.
The bill -- innocuously titled "Relating to Agriculture" -- could very well have been called "Relating to Misunderstandings."
Drafted by Howard Green, a lawyer and farmer who owns Green World Farms, the legislation was the latest proxy war between anti-GMO activists and farm interests.
Some anti-GMO activists mistakenly believed the bill was the work of biotechnology companies that want to undo county GMO and pesticide regulation laws. But Green, who said he had no interest in the GMO issue, drafted the bill so broadly that both the state Attorney General's office and the state Department of Agriculture warned that it would indeed preempt county authority to regulate agriculture.
The hearing produced what is becoming predictable theater.
The Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation framed it as a vote for farmers.
Babes Against Biotech called it a threat to county home rule.
Hawaii County Councilwoman Margaret Wille used the opportunity to defend Hawaii County's ban on new GMO crops.
One man insisted on showing color photographs of babies deformed by Agent Orange, a herbicide manufactured by Monsanto, a biotech company, for use by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.
Three hundred people -- prodded by activists via social media -- wrote testimony in opposition to the bill.
Senators agreed to narrow the bill so it would only prohibit the state Land Use Commission and counties from restricting agricultural-based commercial operations, such as the Green World Farms coffee shop in Wahiawa.
Sen. Russell Ruderman, the only senator on the committees who voted against the amended bill, was critical of the process.
"If the intent is not clearly in line with the text of the bill -- as has been stated here -- then this needs much more careful consideration," Ruderman told fellow senators. "We shouldn't rush as a deadline approaches to make sweeping changes in our laws that have not been understood, that have not been posted for public review, that have not been vetted. There is no emergency facing us.
"I fully sympathize with the farmer we're trying to help. He seems to have a county-level issue. And if we need to change our relationship with the counties, it should be carefully considered.
"If 300 members of the public oppose this bill because they misunderstood the intent, then there's something wrong with the way the bill is written, and we ought to tread carefully when the public mistrusts what we're doing. We ought to exercise caution, deliberation, and care."
Senate Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria said it was "troubling that every ag bill has become a target. And frankly, this senator is getting a little tired of seeing this.
"There is testimony -- albeit 300 plus -- but it almost had nothing to do with the heart of the bill."