Questions surround possible adoption, enforcement of GMO law


With a bill to restrict genetically modified crops passed out of committee, the Hawaii County Council will have only a few more chances to decide whether it wants to adopt the legislation, and, perhaps just as important, how it would be implemented.

To date, the debate over genetically modified organisms has centered around the potential threats and benefits of the controversial technology with limited discussion about how the county could close the door on most new transgenic crops.

Bill 113, as it stands now, does prescribe penalties and allows residents to sue possible violators.

But beyond a registry required for exempted GMO crops, the legislation says little about how the county would ensure the law is being followed or investigate farms that may be ignoring it.

Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille, who introduced the bill, said she is more concerned about getting a law passed than sorting out all those details now. A GMO ad hoc committee, if formed, could later make recommendations for changes to the law, if needed, she said.

“Step one is to get something in place that says no new GMO can come in,” Wille said. “I’m trying to not set up a big regulation (system) of GMO.”

Nonetheless, she said she will propose amendments to her bill at the Tuesday council meeting to address that issue.

The amendments would allow the Planning Department to develop administrative rules for enforcement, Wille said, and copy language from a GMO coffee and taro ban from 2008.

The taro and coffee bill also raised questions about enforcement, which put much of the responsibility in the hands of police.

“It’s uncharted and almost unenforceable because it requires expertise that doesn’t necessarily lie in the Police Department for these violations,” then-Prosecuting Attorney Jay Kimura told Stephens Media Hawaii in 2008 after the ban was adopted.

Wille said she is proposing the changes at the request of other council members who have raised concerns over enforcement.

But much like the previous ban, how effectively the law would be enforced remains unclear.

“The way I have it right now, it would probably be a police deal like coffee or taro is,” Wille said.

“In terms of inspections … it’s basically a complaint-driven system,” she said.

GMO crops typically don’t look any different on the outside than nonGMO varieties, which may also present a challenge for enforcement, especially for those who lack expertise in the area.

Wille said if a grower finds evidence their crops were cross-pollinated with a modified gene, that could point to there being a violator in the area.

A possible indicator could be resistance to herbicides.

Once a farmer believes his crops have been cross-pollinated, the next step could involve crops of nearby farms or suspected violators being sent to the University of Hawaii for testing, she said.

Wille compared it to a smoking ban on beaches. While it may not prevent someone from lighting a cigarette, they can still be reported and fined.

Penalties for violations would be $1,000 per day for each location.

The Hawaii County Department of Research and Development would be responsible for managing the registry.

The registry would cost $100 per year for each farm and require information such as location and types of crops grown, name of property owner, and amount of herbicides and pesticides used.

It would apply to exempted GMO crops, such as papaya and other transgenic plants already grown here, crops that aren’t cultivated in an open-air environment, and those under development.

Wille has said the registry is an important part of the bill, because it helps the county and public know what’s under development or where exempted crops are grown.

Donn Mende, RND deputy director, said Friday he has concerns over the department’s ability to manage such a program. The department is mostly focused on economic development issues and grant management.

“We don’t have the capacity to do something like that,” he said.

The department does have a vacant agricultural specialist position, which focuses on managing contracts and studies related to agriculture. Asked if that position could also be put in charge of a registry, Mende didn’t seem confident.

“We’re not sure about enforcement,” he said. “We don’t have a focus on enforcement.”

Wille said she doesn’t see the department as having an enforcement role and a registry wouldn’t be beyond its means.

“If they have trouble handling that, I’ll fill out the form for them and show them how to do it,” she said.

Mende said the department hasn’t talked about the bill with Wille yet, but he said he would be happy to discuss it and any potential problems.

The bill will be discussed for the first time at the full council level at the Tuesday meeting, starting at 4 p.m. at the West Hawaii Civic Center in Kailua-Kona.

The council, meeting as the Public Safety and Mass Transit Committee, gave it a positive recommendation Oct. 1 with a 6-2 vote.

The bill needs two votes at the council level and mayor’s signature to become law.

The committee first took on the issue last May.

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