Council committee moves GMO bill forward


A County Council committee gave a bill that would restrict the use of genetically altered crops a positive recommendation Tuesday, ensuring that the legislation would survive nearly five months after the committee first took on the controversial issue.

The legislation, Bill 113, was moved forward to the council level in a 6-2 vote with Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan voting no and Council Chairman J Yoshimoto voting no with reservations. Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi was absent.

The vote was a breakthrough for the Public Safety and Mass Transit Committee, which often seemed far from action as members struggled to plot a course for a bill that would undoubtedly determine the future of agriculture on the Big Isle.

It also was a positive sign for opponents of genetically modified organisms who have sat through nine days of meetings hoping to see it succeed.

Some applauded the committee at the end of the meeting.

“We’re just happy to finally get some legislation through and we’re making a step in the right direction,” said Derek Brewer, of GMO Free Hawaii Island.

“We would obviously like that to be a speedier process but we’re happy to get something,” he added.

Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille, who introduced the bill, has referred to it as an attempt to “draw a line in the sand” against introduction of new transgenic crops on the island, which she believes can cause harm to people and the environment.

She said the vote was a small but important step.

“We’re in a web of life,” Wille said.

The bill would ban the open-air cultivation of GMO crops but contains an exemption for the papaya industry and any other transgenic crops already grown.

The committee also passed an amendment to the bill exempting non-commercial papaya growers from the registration requirement and allowing for lawsuits against violators to be filed in 3rd Circuit Court. It also specifically bans open-air testing.

While supported by GMO opponents, the bill has been heavily criticized by several isle agricultural organizations and some university researchers who say it will limit options for farmers and ranchers seeking to lower costs or deal with pests and disease.

Currently, the only known transgenic crops on the island belong to papaya farmers who use varieties engineered to be resistant to the ringspot virus and a dairy on the Hamakua Coast that grows transgenic corn for feed.

Though exempted from the ban, papaya farmers remain opposed to a requirement that they register with the county and pay a $100 annual fee.

Representatives of the papaya industry say they fear a public registry could lead to farmers being targeted by GMO opponents and hurt sales.

“We’re kind of scared,” said LJ Bernardo, who runs a 5-acre farm near Kapoho with his brother, JR Bernardo.

The farm was vandalized last week when about 100 papaya trees were cut over night. The brothers suspect they were targeted for growing GMO papaya.

While most council members appear ready to take some action on the GMO issue, there were a few who questioned the lengthy process Tuesday.

Puna Councilman Zendo Kern estimated that the county has spent almost $20,000 on the meetings, which have included hundreds of testifiers.

“We can’t keep doing the same thing over and over and over again expecting a different result,” he said before the vote. “That’s insanity.”

Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha expressed similar frustration, saying the committee should have first taken on a proposal to form an ad hoc committee to study the issue.

“I think we are completely wasting our time, the committee’s time and taxpayer dollars on something that should have been talked about first and foremost,” he said.

The ad hoc committee proposal was tabled at the meeting after Corporation Counsel informed the council members that they would have to pass a bill first.

While the process has been lengthy, Wille said she believes it has been worthwhile.

“I think this is a great discussion,” she said. “This is an island talking about its future.”

The bill needs two votes by the council and the mayor’s signature to be adopted.

If adopted, the bill would be the second GMO bill passed by the county.

In 2008, the county adopted a ban on GMO taro and coffee.

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