Mayor Billy Kenoi provided some insight Thursday into why he signed a controversial measure banning new genetically modified organisms from growing in Hawaii County.
The Hawaii County Council passed the measure in November; Kenoi signed it into law the following month. From his perspective, he said, the question of growing GMOs isn’t a “fundamental” one for Hawaii County, although it is important.
More important, he said, was calming down the discussion and respecting the island’s farmers and ranchers, who will be allowed to continue to grow the products they already are growing.
“If I had vetoed that legislation, we’d still be shouting and yelling about GMO today,” Kenoi told attendees at the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce’s focus luncheon at King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel. “We needed to quiet the yelling and shouting. We need to talk about how we support our farmers and ranchers.”
Since taking office in 2008, Kenoi said farmers have approached him about water needs, lack of land for growing crops and training more farmers. No farmer, he said, has proposed GMOs as a major problem for them.
That said, Kenoi said he doesn’t want to see “big agribusiness” companies coming to Hawaii Island. Referencing Kauai County, where a GMO debate has split the island and where big companies are growing seed crops, Kenoi said he doesn’t want to see seed crops grown here.
“We want food grown,” he said.
Kenoi also reminded the attendees of the work his office, the governor’s office and the state’s congressional delegation is doing to get the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Patrol to return service to Kona International Airport. The state now has $35 million available for the needed security upgrades to the international arrival terminal, Kenoi said.
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-2nd, on Wednesday broached the subject with Homeland Security Director Jeh Johnson, noting that Hawaii only has one airport equipped for international arrivals, Kenoi said, and raised questions about what could happen if something happened to Honolulu International Airport. Gabbard also noted that having no Customs and Border Patrol presence in Kona could lead to other security issues for flights headed to the mainland from here.
Kenoi earlier this year made an economic argument supporting reinstating direct international flights here, during a January encounter with Johnson in Washington D.C.
“I said, ‘we have the money to meet their requirements,’” Kenoi said. “He followed up. We followed up again.”
Kenoi said Hawaii Island could easily become the first destination for international visitors who also want to see Maui or Waikiki. They could come here and “visit the tallest mountain,” play golf on “world-class” courses and then go to Waikiki for a day of shopping, instead of spending just a day here.
Responding to an audience question about the Alii Parkway, sometimes called the Alii bypass or Kahului to Keauhou Parkway, Kenoi said that is an issue that has been studied multiple times, but remains in the “data recovery” stage, checking for impacts to cultural sites. He said he sees other West Hawaii projects that will alleviate traffic and can be accomplished during his final term. Those projects take precedence over the parkway, he added.