GMO labeling bill may die on the vine


A proposed bill that would mandate the labeling of transgenic food in Hawaii could die in Honolulu Hale without reaching the state Legislature.

By a 9-0 vote on Sept. 5, the Hawaii County Council passed a resolution asking the Hawaii State Association of Counties to include in its 2013 legislative package a proposal requiring consumers be notified that a food product or a raw agricultural commodity contains material from genetically engineered organisms, or GMOs. If approved by the Legislature and the state, the law would go into effect Jan. 1, 2014.

But before HSAC can include the language in its legislative package, it has to be approved by all four county councils. The councils of Kauai and Maui County have both passed resolutions in favor of GMO labeling, but the Honolulu City Council has not.

Last Wednesday afternoon, minutes before the close of the business for the Thanksgiving weekend, five Honolulu council members introduced a resolution for the HSAC that omits requests to introduce both a GMO labeling bill and a proposed repeal of the Public Lands Development Corp.

The passage of the resolution without a floor amendment would mean that the Hawaii County Council’s votes requesting HSAC to introduce legislation abolishing the PLDC and mandating GMO labeling would be nullified.

GMO opponents could still get the Legislature to pass a bill requiring transgenic labeling, but that was tried through several bills in the 2012 session without success. Given that record, it’s unclear whether lawmakers would support an HSAC-sponsored bill establishing GMO labeling requirements. But at minimum, the support of all four counties’ legislative bodies would be seen as a significant advance for the organic foods movement.

The resolution will be discussed this afternoon in a Honolulu council committee and again at a meeting of the full council on Dec. 5. HSAC President Mel Rapozo, a Kauai councilman, has set Dec. 6 as the final deadline for the acceptance of legislative proposals.

The omissions were noticed by Naomi Carmona, executive secretary to Honolulu Councilman Tom Berg.

Carmona, the founder of the anti-GMO organization Babes Against Biotech, said the council’s practice of unilaterally removing proposals that had been circulated statewide was of questionable legality, and she added that Berg introduced an amended resolution that restores the GMO labeling requirements.

The Honolulu council members’ removal of the PLDC resolution, however, was not discovered quickly enough for Berg’s staff to place an amendment on the agenda, meaning that proposals to abolish the agency could face another hurdle absent a floor amendment.

“It’s going to be crazy at Honolulu Hale tomorrow,” Carmona said, with expected testimony from people opposed to both GMOs and the PLDC.

Mark Phillipson, the lead of corporate affairs for Syngenta Hawaii, takes a different approach.

“I don’t think anybody’s opposed to the right to know what’s in people’s food. I think it’s more of the framework of the laws or the labeling requirements that need to be done.”

Syngenta is a multinational corporation based in 90 countries. It grows transgenic corn and soybeans on Oahu and Kauai.

“Our industry, we hope that food labeling would be based on facts and science,” Phillipson said. He cited the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s position that “they don’t deem it necessary to label” the foods and concurrence by the American Medical Association.

“Anything that’s GMO, we’d certainly want it to be thoroughly tested and go through the rigors of science and scientific review, but the mandatory labeling is something that is not necessary,” Phillipson said.

Genetically modified foods include a majority of papayas grown in Hawaii, 95 percent of soybeans in America and 88 percent of corn.

Passage of a GMO labeling bill, could prevent any item containing corn from being sold in Hawaii without a label. That includes soft drinks and other processed foods that use high fructose corn syrup, corn starch and popcorn.

The labeling requirements also apply to food products derived from animals that have been fed” transgenic food.

“If you do require this mandatory labeling, there are going to be costs associated with it,” Phillipson said.

That was also an issue for Hawaii County Councilman Dennis Onishi, even though he voted to include the bill in the HSAC package.