Ability to regulate GMO crops questioned


A Big Island lawmaker has raised questions regarding Hawaii County’s ability to regulate genetically altered crops.

On Friday, state Sen. Malama Solomon sent Hawaii Attorney General David Louie an email asking for an opinion on the issue.

Solomon, D-North Hawaii, said she chose to raise the question after hearing concerns from the Hamakua Farm Bureau about a proposed ban on most crops with modified genes that’s now before the Hawaii County Council.

“When you deal with (genetically modified organisms), you are dealing with interstate commerce laws, which is why the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) usually takes on those issues,” she said.

But the response was less than definitive, Solomon said, adding she doesn’t plan to push the issue any further.

“I’ve withdrawn my letter,” she said after speaking with Louie on Monday. “They said they really can’t give a response because it’s unclear.”

Anne Lopez, spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, said she couldn’t speak to the conversation directly but confirmed the issue is not something the office plans to weigh in on.

“We have not analyzed it to come up with a legal opinion,” she said.

Perhaps reassuring to GMO opponents, Lopez said the proposed ban, if adopted, is not something the state plans to challenge.

“We have no current plans to do that,” she said. “We know that’s a really big issue.”

In 2008, the county adopted a ban on GMO coffee and taro that has not been legally challenged.

Lincoln Ashida, county corporation counsel, said he had asked the office to comment on the subject a few months ago but was told it would not be providing an opinion.

“They said basically that they respectfully deny our request for opinion,” he said.

Ashida said that was an unusual response, adding an opinion could give the county more clarity on the issue.

“This is something we really need to know if there are any pre-emption issues,” he said.

“We don’t want to pass something that is going to be challenged later.”

But Ashida said he has not found any reason the county can’t legally adopt or enforce the proposed ban.

“At present, we’re unable to find any legal impediments such as state pre-emption, especially in light of the fact the attorney general has refused to weigh in,” he said.

The lack of a challenge to the GMO taro and coffee ban also proves reassuring, Ashida said.

Solomon said she is a supporter of biotechnology and questions the reasoning for restricting its use on the island.

She said she supports the idea of forming a task force to study the issue, including proposals for labeling of GMO products.

Solomon is also one of several Big Isle lawmakers to have received donations from the major biotech companies.

Those donations to her from Syngenta, Monsanto and Dow Agro Sciences total $3,250 over the last two years.

Asked if the contributions impact her position on the issue, Solomon said, “No, I don’t think it does.

“All one has to do is talk to farmers that have really farmed.”

“Because you get more productivity and you get less exposure to pesticides,” she argued.

GMO opponents have questioned the use of genes that allow some crops to essentially create their own pesticides. They also argue that herbicide-resistant crops lead to more chemicals being sprayed.

The council’s bill will be discussed at 4 p.m. today at the West Hawaii Civic Center.

The bill would create a GMO registry and ban any open-air use of transgenic crops with exemptions for papaya and other modified crops already grown on the island.

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