Attack on papaya farm comes as GMO debate rages


Calling the incident “very unfortunate,” Hawaii County Councilwoman Margaret Wille said Saturday the debate over genetically modified organisms should not be sidetracked after a farmer had about 100 papaya trees slashed, possibly by anti-GMO activists.

The felled transgenic trees were discovered Friday morning on the farm of J.R. Bernardo, located in Kapoho. The damage is estimated at $3,000.

It’s the second time in two years the Bernardo family has had their farms hit by machete-wielding vandals, but the first since the debate over GMOs was re-ignited on the Big Isle with the introduction of legalization to restrict their use.

Online and in print, supporters of the papaya industry, which largely uses varieties engineered to be resistant to the ringspot virus that devastated growers in the 1990s, have commented the act is likely a result of the heated rhetoric that has been part of the ongoing GMO debate before the council.

“We just think it’s perpetuated through these bills,” said Peter Houle, a Hawaii Papaya Industry Association board member who has been handling media calls for the Bernardos.

Houle also sub-lets the land used by J.R. Bernardo and his parents, Jimmy and Erlinda Bernardo.

The vandalism was the third time transgenic papaya trees have been slashed over the last few years. The farm of Jimmy and Erlinda Bernardo was among the three farms hit in July 2011, with damage totalling 10 acres. Another 17 acres, or 8,500 trees, were slashed on the farm of Laureto Julian in June 2010.

This time, the trees were cut the night before the HPIA’s annual conference, helping cement the theory that it was done to intimidate papaya farmers in general.

Wille, who introduced Bill 113 now before the council, said the legislation shouldn’t be blamed.

“If you say that then you are really yelling at the messengers,” she said.

The bill was introduced after she withdrew her original anti-GMO bill in August. It will be discussed by the council again Tuesday.

Suggesting a possible motive, Wille said the presence of transgenic papaya has created “long-term resentment” with non-GMO papaya farmers who she said were put out of business.

But she said she doesn’t think acts of vandalism are justified.

The Kohala councilwoman said it’s also time to take action on the legislation, delayed months as the council took testimony from hundreds of isle residents.

“We need to move this conversation forward,” she said.

While papaya farmers are exempt from the bill’s ban, they would be required to register with the county and provide information on their crops and locations.

Houle said he worries that information could be used to target more farmers.

“Who knows where that information will go to,” Houle added. “I’m being a little paranoid, but I guess I’m not paranoid after last night.”

In its current form, Wille’s bill would ban the open-air cultivation of GMO crops with exemptions for papaya and other transgenic plants already grown.

Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi has offered several amendments including an exemption for government agencies and universities, the ornamental plant industry and plants that have nonregulated status.

Wille has offered her own amendment, which includes an exemption for noncommercial growers. She has also proposed forming an ad hoc committee to study the issue.

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