County council votes against full GMO ban


It was deja vu for the Hawaii County Council on Tuesday as it voted against a full ban on genetically modified crops while meeting in committee.

The vote was the second time the council’s Public Safety and Mass Transit Committee had considered Councilwoman Brenda Ford’s bill.

The result was the same: one yes vote and a negative recommendation to the full council.

Ford, the committee chairwoman, said she didn’t expect a different result but nonetheless was required to bring the bill back to the committee after the Environmental Management Commission reviewed it. The commission also gave it a negative recommendation.

The vote came about two months after the council passed a bill banning open-air use and open-air testing of modified crops, with exemptions for altered crops already grown on the island. That ordinance is currently being implemented.

Though with fewer people, the public testimony was also largely a repeat of past sessions on the topic, with opponents of GMOs urging the council to “protect the aina” by banning biotech companies and their products.

Some testifiers also referenced pending battles in the state Legislature regarding GMOs, and fearing attempts to rollback efforts to increase regulation at the local level, requested the council go with a full ban.

Passing the full ban without eliminating the existing ordinance could have made things more difficult for GMO opponents, as it might have resulted in both anti-GMO measures essentially canceling each other out, Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida told the council members.

Ford said that wasn’t her intent, but hoped that parts of her bill could be incorporated into the existing ordinance through amendments.

While explaining their no votes, several council members said they were ready to let the existing ordinance be put to use.

The vote was the first time the council had taken up the GMO topic since a proposal to create an ad hoc committee to study the issue failed last month.

The ordinance requires exempted growers or anyone conducting GMO research to register with the county Department of Research and Development.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center appears to be involved in the most genetic research on the island.

According to a list of projects on the USDA’s website, recent or ongoing genetic research at the Hilo-based facility includes work with anthuriums, tomatoes, lettuce, papayas and orchids. The projects typically involve developing resistance to disease and improving shelf life.

Impacts to the facility remain unclear. The law bans open-air testing but PBARC officials have been hesitant to comment how the law may change their operations.

Research has not yet been stopped or put on hold, said PBARC director Marisa Wall.

The county Department of Research and Development is waiving the $100 registration fee called for in the ordinance, in an attempt to get as much participation as possible, said Deputy Director Donn Mende.

Growers of modified crops, and those conducting genetic research on plants, have until March 5 to register. A form is available at the department and on the county’s website.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.