Chasm wide, deep in GMO debate as vote on bill nears


There’s more than one way to slice the debate over genetically engineered food.

The introduction of transgenic crops into the food supply 17 years ago has produced an abundance of opinion on the controversial issue, with the gulf between the two sides often seeming as immense as the Pacific Ocean.

To some, it’s a means to improve crops, lower costs and address problems such as plant viruses.

For others, it simply promotes bad agricultural practices, such as monoculture and use of herbicides, while also placing the food supply in the hands of a few corporations.

With such wide-ranging views, finding middle ground — or sorting out fact from fiction, for that matter — can be difficult.

More than 60 countries have placed restrictions on transgenic crops, typically referred to as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, according to the Non-GMO Project, which certifies food that isn’t genetically altered. But few local governments have taken on the issue.

In the United States, only a handful of counties or cities have passed bans or extensive restrictions on transgenic crops. Those that have largely cite concerns over cross-pollination between transgenic and non-transgenic plants, as well as claims about health effects from the food that remain hotly debated.

On Tuesday, the Hawaii County Council will consider adding the Big Island to that list as it votes for the second and final time on a bill that would limit the use of transgenic crops.

And both sides see a lot at stake, with ripple effects likely to be felt on the mainland and perhaps beyond.

“A lot of people are watching what happens on Kauai (where a GMO bill was recently vetoed) and the Big Island,” said Blake Watson, a Volcano resident who is a member of GMO Free Hawaii Island.

“It would help get better legislation passed in the future elsewhere,” he said.

Some have done more than watch. Advocates and critics of transgenic food from beyond Hawaii also have weighed in on the debate.

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, called the current fight on the Big Isle a “battle royale.”

“This will have a significant impact on how this debate proceeds over the next few years,” said Entine, a GMO advocate.

The bill wouldn’t be the first time the county has adopted anti-GMO legislation.

In 2008, it passed a ban on GMO coffee and taro.

The ban, backed by coffee and taro growers, created some controversy at the time, but it was far more limited in scope than the current legislation.

Bill 113 would ban open-air use of GMO crops with some exemptions, and it has put several agriculture groups on the defensive.

Papaya farmers, who rely mostly on transgenic varieties to combat the ringspot virus, have been steadfast against it, citing impacts to the industry even though they would be exempt from the ban. Big Island Dairy, which grows transgenic corn for feed, also would be exempted.

The dairy and papaya growers would both have to sign up for a GMO registry at a cost of $100 a year.

Michael Madamba, a papaya farmer, believes the bill unnecessarily gives a negative impression of transgenic papaya, and he is concerned about the future of the industry.

“If the bill passes, it will be hard for me to encourage my farmers to continue farming,” he said.

Ranchers, who see transgenic crops as a way to provide affordable feed or potentially address issues such as drought, have also come out against the bill, as have University of Hawaii researchers who are worried that the bill would shut the door on the commercialization of new virus-resistant crops.

Among them is Michael Shintaku, a plant pathologist with UH-Hilo.

Shintaku is developing a variety of virus-resistance lettuce, using similar processes that led to ringspot-resistant papaya in the 1990s.

If the bill is adopted, he is concerned that the research may be put on ice as testing in the county would be limited to greenhouses.

Scientists say crops must be tested in an open-air environment to be federally approved.

Shintaku said he isn’t confident that a crop only tested in a greenhouse could be released for commercialization.

“It kind of puts a stop to all of this technology,” he said.

“Right now, things are happening. It’s a really interesting time for biotech.”

Lettuce isn’t the only crop in Hawaii with which scientists are tinkering.

Tomatos, bananas and anthuriums are all being experimented on with genetic engineering, mainly to develop resistance to disease.

Under the bill, their use on the Big Island would be limited to greenhouses unless an “emergency exemption” is granted by the council.

Without an open-air use available, the likelihood of research going through will be lessened, scientists say.

“If there’s no end product, the need for GMO (research) is very limited,” said Russell Nagata, Hawaii County administrator for the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

While GMO advocates say the bill would unnecessarily restrain farmers, putting them at a disadvantage to growers elsewhere in Hawaii, critics of the technology say open-air use causes more harm than good. They also argue that the market for GMO food is dwindling.

David Case, Kona chapter president for Hawaii Farmers Union United, said cross-pollination between GMO and non-GMO crops is a real issue for farmers on the island who grow food that isn’t modified.

When grown in an open-air environment, the seeds become difficult to contain, he said, which puts additional burdens on non-GMO farmers to ensure their crops don’t catch any of the modified genes.

“Other forms of agriculture, farming — not just organic, anything that is not a GMO crop — carries the risk of losing its market if it’s cross-pollinated,” Case said. “So we should be careful about losing the world’s markets for Hawaii’s products.”

GMO advocates and opponents also disagree on whether cross-pollination poses any problems.

Supporters of the technology say cross-pollination is an issue for all crops, modified or not, and believe it can be reduced by farmers coordinating planting periods.

Scientists say GMO crops must not create any weed-like characteristics or environmental and health effects to be released.

Those interviewed don’t believe those issues have occurred, though many GMO opponents would disagree.

“When it cross-pollinates, will it harm the environment? Will it create a superweed?” said Dennis Gonsalves, who helped create transgenic papaya, while explaining what’s considered when testing GMO crops.

“Through all our testing, the answer is no,” he said.

Whether it harms the environment or not, there’s still an economic impact on non-GMO growers whose plants are cross-pollinated, Case argued.

“There can be lots of debate about the science of GMOs,” he said. “There is no doubt about (the effects of) cross-pollination on markets of non-GMO crops.”

The issue of cross-pollination also raises the question of co-existence — can GMO and non-GMO farmers work on the same island without causing each other harm?

On the Big Isle, the only significant example available is transgenic papaya. And both sides provide different accounts.

GMO advocates say the industry wouldn’t exist without genetic modification, and believe that the crops reduce the spread of the ringspot virus, which provides a benefit to non-GMO growers.

On the other side, critics of the technology largely perceive the threat of cross-pollination as greater than the virus itself, and note that it places a burden on them to make sure the modified genes stay out of their seeds.

“At what point … are you going to not jeopardize everyone else?” said Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille, who introduced the bill.

Wille has largely pitched the bill as protection against cross-pollination as well as a means to keep the large biotech companies, which have GMO seed farms on other islands, out of the county. Those companies have said they have no plans to expand to the Big Island.

She also has been criticized for pushing for the bill without having a committee study the issue in detail. An ad hoc committee, tasked with doing just that, remains on the table.

“From the beginning, they should have sat down with the industry,” said Jason Moniz, Hamakua Farm Bureau president.

“They should have done that first before putting out the bill and asking later.”

Wille defended her approach, saying that the county needs to put a stop to GMO expansion first, while allowing for changes or amendments in the future.

“We’re the only island that’s not dominated by GMO agriculture,” she said. “Let’s be precautionary, keep the door closed while we look at that. Isn’t that the adult thing to do?”

Wille has also received some backlash from the anti-GMO community over amendments that allow for an emergency exemption as well as allow names of exempted GMO growers to be kept private.

She said she is trying to provide a bill that is reasonable — and will get the support of the council and the administration.

“I don’t want to have a great bill that’s defeated,” Wille said. “I’d rather have some modest bill that has a greater deal of substance and purpose.”

While disappointed with some of the changes, Watson said many GMO opponents still give the bill their support.

“It kind of turned the group sour on the bill for a little while,” he said.

Watson believes the bill is still needed to act as a stop-gap measure against the adoption of more modified crops. Its restrictions, he argues, also could have economic benefits since he believes the trend amongst consumers is going against GMOs.

“We can market this place, the products we sell of this isle as GMO free,” he said. “All we’re asking for is one island out of five.”

Wille also has made similar arguments, and said she is “very confident” that, if the county adopts the bill, it will look back years from now and believe it still made the right decision.

“That’s really what it’s about,” she said. “What is the vision for what we want our island to be in five, 10, 20 years?”

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