Big Isle ag community split over GMO


The debate over genetically modified organisms has Big Island farmers sitting on both sides of the fence.

The agriculture community appears divided over the issue, with farmers both supporting and condemning a bill before the Hawaii County Council to limit the use of engineered crops.

While the debate over GMOs is complex, with environmental, health, and even philosophical concerns weighing in, farmers on both sides give a common reason for their positions — economics.

Fearing a hit in the global marketplace, farmers of transgenic papaya have come out against the bill even though they would be exempted from the proposed ban.

Ross Sibucao, Hawaii Papaya Industry Association president, believes talk of a ban gives modified papaya a bad image. He is concerned about markets, like Japan, that have recently allowed the crops to be imported.

“If they were to find out about it,” he said, referring to the bill, “it may hinder our market with them.”

Nursery owners, who hope to benefit from genetic engineering, have also come out against the bill, along with groups representing the island’s banana growers, dairy and cattle farmers.

At least two farmer groups are supporting the bill — the Kona Coffee Farmers Association and Hawaii Farmers Union United.

Representatives of both organizations say genetic modification could pose threats to their members’ livelihoods.

David Case, Kona chapter president for the farmers union, said that concerns over cross-pollination between GMO and non-GMO crops alone could be enough for consumers to stay away.

Case said the bill would allow farmers and their buyers to have confidence in what they are growing.

“We should be very careful,” he said, “… until we understand how they operate and what effects they can have on their markets.”

The group represents about 300 farmers statewide, with about 40 to 50 on the Big Island, Case said.

The bill’s proposed amendments provide exemptions for research institutions, papaya and floral growers, as well as any other transgenic crops already grown here. Other types and uses of modified crops would be banned.

The council last tackled the issue in 2008 when it adopted a ban on GMO coffee and taro.

Even with that ban in place, KCFA President Cecelia Smith said the new bill would be good for the coffee industry.

Japan and China are big buyers of Kona coffee, and those markets are sensitive to the idea of genetic engineering, she said.

Smith said she sees the bill as reinforcing the fact that the coffee is not GMO. It will also help with the image of Kona coffee abroad, she said.

“We can’t afford to have that tainted,” Smith said. “They are such big buyers.”

Each of the group’s nine board members voted in support of the bill, Smith said.

The organization represents 247 coffee farmers, she said.

The GMO legislation, Bill 79, will be heard again today by the council’s Committee on Public Safety and Mass Transit.

The meeting, which begins with public testimony, is held at 9 a.m. in Kailua-Kona.

Testimony can also be given at county locations in Hilo, Pahoa, Waimea and Hawaiian Ocean View Estates.

The bill needs two votes at the council level to be adopted.

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