A popular weed killer would be pulled from store shelves under a bill a Big Island representative introduced.
State Sen. Josh Green proposed a five-year moratorium on the sale and use of products containing glyphosate, a chemical found in common herbicides such as Roundup.
Products containing the chemical are sold over the counter and used by property owners, government agencies and farmers alike to control weeds.
Though considered one of the least-toxic herbicides used in agriculture, its widespread adoption made it a focal point of criticism from environmentalists as well as opponents of genetically engineered crops. Modified varieties of corn and soybean have been developed to be resistant to glyphosate, allowing farmers to spray the chemical without harming their plants.
Green’s bill would place a moratorium — from July 1, 2014, through July 1, 2019 — on all use of the product while a “glyphosate working group” studies its impacts on health and the environment.
While defending the proposed moratorium, Green, D-Kona, Ka‘u, said in a phone interview he doesn’t think the state should wait until the working group is finished before taking some action.
“Task forces, when they make recommendations, are non-binding,” he said. “And I’ll be candid. I’m not sure that we’ve seen the political will to take full action yet.”
Chris Manfredi, acting president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, said he is not opposed to a working group but thinks the proposed moratorium is “putting the cart before the horse.”
“He certainly hasn’t talked to the Farm Bureau,” he said. “We would have expressed concerns about it if he had.”
Manfredi said glyphosate is one of the most “popular and innocuous herbicides in usage.”
“It’s effective so you don’t have to use as much as you would with other products,” he said.
Green, an emergency room physician, cited studies he said show the chemical is harmful to the development of placenta cells, and he thinks it also might be responsible for the decline in bee populations.
Echoing arguments made by opponents of genetically engineered crops, he said the state should follow the “precautionary principle.”
In general, the principle is used to urge caution when effects of a process or action are unclear or disputed.
“If people care about using this chemical, why not make sure it is safe?” Green said.
Tom Matsuda, pesticide program manager for the state Department of Agriculture, said any herbicide carries risk if not used correctly. Such risks are mitigated by following the instructions on the label, he said.
“It’s like cough medicine,” Matsuda said. “Is it safe? What’s the benefit versus the risk?”
Green said he is also concerned about the chemical building up in the environment because of its widespread use.
“We’ve asked the county and state how they are measuring” use, he said. “They didn’t know what the health impact was.
“I think it’s a pretty serious thing if we don’t know and we could be concentrating extra chemicals on some people’s land.”
According to the National Pesticide Information Center, glyphosate has a half-life of between two and 197 days, depending on soil and climate conditions.
While the bill would prevent farmers and others from using glyphosate, stronger, restricted-use chemicals would still be legal.
But Green said he would hope farmers go organic instead of switching to other chemicals to control weeds.
“Obviously, we would rather see them use organic processes,” he said. “It will have greater value than the big agribusiness working out of Molokai,” Green added, in an apparent reference to Monsanto.
The company, which has seed farms in the state, produces Roundup as well as the Roundup-ready crops.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.