GMOs, Pesticides And Island Jobs

It’s complicated. It’s all very, very complicated.

Consider Honolulu City Councilman Stanley Chang’s bemoaning the plight of his Iolani classmates in last week’s “Mostly Politics.” He estimated that “90 percent of his graduating class went off to the Mainland” and never came back.

His number sounded bloated to me, but it’s certainly indicative of a concern of parents of talented local kids across the state: Hawaii’s brain drain to better jobs and areas with lower costs of living on the Mainland.

A case in point: Within days of my interview with Chang, The New York Times ran a story about Kauai’s GMO controversy and the pending Kauai County Council vote on pesticide legislation. The story led with a photo of a young man standing between two rows of seed corn, looking down pensively at the stalks.

I knew him. I’ve known him since he was a small kid. Like Chang, he went to public elementary schools, then to Iolani, then to the Mainland for college. He did graduate work at a top-flight East Coast university; his doctorate in botany in hand, he did a series of post-docs in faraway Europe.

But he made it back to Hawaii, to the island of Kauai, as a plant scientist with one of the island’s four seed companies. He does intellectually stimulating work and receives a good salary. Just as important, his parents, retired public school teachers, live a 20-minute flight away from their son, his wife and their beloved grandchildren.

Yet the controversy over GMOs endangers his job and those of approximately 600 other agricultural workers on Kauai (few of whom, to be sure, are compensated as well as my plant scientist).

After a series of marathon Council sessions, red- and blue-hued demonstrations, and often distinctly uncivil debate, the Kauai County Council last week passed Bill 2491. It requires farms to disclose their pesticide use and the presence of genetically modified crops if they use more than five pounds or 15 gallons of restricted pesticides annually. It also requires a buffer zone of 500 feet near hospitals, clinics, schools and homes. Anti-GMO legislation also has been debated by the Hawaii County Council, and more anti-GMO legislation is sure to be introduced wherever across the state that seed companies operate.

Council members, state legislators, mayors and the governor will have to respond with well-crafted legislation that somehow assuages those on both sides of the issue, protects public health – and maintains jobs.

That last is the complicated part and it always has been. It’s old news that, since the death of the sugar industry, Hawaii’s economy has come to depend far too heavily on tourism, particularly on the Neighbor Islands. And if there’s any lesson for Hawaii to be drawn from the ever-so-slowly receding Great Recession, it’s that jobs in economies based on mass tourism are extraordinarily vulnerable.

Ask the Las Vegas tourist authority. Or better, check Kauai’s unemployment rate for June 2009, the recession’s worst month; it stood at 10.9 percent. At the same time, Hawaii County’s unemployment rate topped 11 percent.

Both counties continue to count agricultural land as a primary resource that supports steady employment for those who grow coffee, papayas, macadamia nuts, a little pineapple, a little sugar and, yes, seed corn.

It’s complicated, but necessary.