Council passes GMO bill

Corrections
Puna Councilman Zendo Kern voted “yes with reservations.” Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha voted only “yes.”It is the policy of West Hawaii Today to correct promptly any incorrect or misleading information when it is brought to the attention of the newspaper.

The Hawaii County Council passed Bill 113 today in a landmark 6-3 vote.

The bill restricts the expansion of transgenic crops grown on the Big Island by limiting most of their use to enclosed structures, such as a greenhouse.

Voting no were Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi, Council Chairman J Yoshimoto and Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan. Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha voted yes with reservations.

The vote occurred without discussion and the council voted to send the bill to Mayor Billy Kenoi for consideration immediately.

The final vote took about six months and many lengthy public comment sessions to reach.

Throughout the process, hundreds of people, with a large majority speaking against genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, gave testimony before the council.

In total, the council has spent 13 days meeting on the issue, most of which was dedicated to receiving testimony.

The vote was a significant victory for the Hawaii anti-GMO movement, which has questioned the safety of inserting genes into plants and use of herbicide-resistant crops, and sought to keep the controversial GMO seed industry out of the isle.

After the vote, GMO opponents didn’t hesitate to celebrate with many filling the council chambers at the West Hawaii Civic Center with applause.

“We’re stoked; we’re relieved,” said Volcano resident Blake Watson. “This is a great first step.”

GMO supporters said they were disappointed with the move, particularly since discussion among the council members had not been signficant prior to the meeting.

“It’s on a fast track and I guess that’s what they wanted to do,” said Lorie Farrell, a coordinator with Hawaii Farmers and Ranchers United.

In their testimony, bill supporters have voiced a strong preference for organic and small-scale farming, and the divide between the two sides could also be seen in the agriculture community.

A dozen Big Isle agriculture organizations, which have become increasingly united against any further GMO restrictions, opposed the bill, according to Farrell.

At least two groups, Hawaii Farmers Union United, whose focus is on family farms, and the Kona Coffee Farmers Association supported it.

Farmers supporting the bill have expressed concern over cross-pollination between modified and nonmodified crops, which they say can hurt or even close their markets.

Those against the bill say it will put them at a disadvantage compared to growers elsewhere in the state. Some see themselves as collateral damage in the battle against big biotech.

“Farmers and ranchers have come to tell you they (biotech companies) aren’t the ones that are going to be hurt,” Bill Walter, president of W.H. Shipman Ltd., told the council.

“It’s not the Monsantos and the Duponts. It’s the small farmers on the island.”

While there has been much debate over the safety of the food, the bill does not stop GMO ingredients, which are believed to exist in a large majority of food items, from being sold on store shelves or being used in animal feed.

But it would curb the further adoption of GMO crops on the island at a time when apprehension about their use has been increasing. It would also likely restrict research on the island of new modified varieties since open-air testing will be banned, University of Hawaii scientists have said.

Previously, the county adopted a more limited GMO bill that banned transgenic coffee and taro. That was passed in 2008.

Farmers who already grow GMO crops would be exempted from the new ban. That includes papaya growers, who largely rely on transgenic varieties that are resistant to the ringspot virus, and Big Island Dairy.

Violators would be fined $1,000 a day for each violation.

A GMO registry for exempted growers will be overseen by the county Department of Research and Development.

Emergency exemptions could also be granted by the council.

Before the vote, Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille, who introduced the bill, said she is trying to be protective of the environment and non-GMO farmers.

“I think it’s a very important step, a very modest bill,” she said.

Wille also said she is committed to forming an ad hoc committee to further study the issue, though no action yet has been taken on that proposal.

“We can work out the nuances,” she said. “We can work together as to what is our vision and what is the future of the island.”

Kenoi has three options when it gets to his desk. He can either sign it, veto it, or let it go into effect without his signature.

The council can override a veto with six votes, which it appears to have.

If the bill passes that hurdle, it will go into effect immediately.

Some GMO supporters have said they intend to challenge it in court if enacted.

While the state Attorney General’s Office has declined to give an opinion, county Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida has said the county has the legal authority to enact the law.

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