State panel to consider future of agriculture


HILO — From protecting taro lands to regulating genetically modified food, the House Agriculture Committee is expecting to have a full plate when it meets today in Honolulu.

The committee is moving its meeting to the state Capitol Auditorium to accommodate what’s expected to be a large turnout on legislation that its chair is calling a “turning point in the future of agriculture in Hawaii.”

“Food security, increased local food production, recognizing consumers’ rights to know what they’re eating, and protecting the most culturally significant crop in Hawaii are at the forefront of our agenda,” said Chairwoman Rep. Jessica Wooley, D-Oahu, in a written statement.

Rep. Richard Onishi, the committee’s vice chair, said it’s not yet clear how committee members will vote on the issues but he’s expecting plenty of testimony for them to consider.

“We’re anticipating a big crowd,” said Onishi, D-Hilo, Keaau, Kurtistown, Volcano.

On genetically modified organisms, the committee will consider legislation that would require or authorize labeling of products as either genetically modified or non-GMO. Other bills would set up a permitting process for GMO food and eliminate tax incentives for GMO research and development within state enterprise zones.

The practice of genetically modifying food, typically to increase production or lower costs, has proven controversial, with critics raising concern over potential impacts to the ecosystem and human health.

Onishi said he supports allowing farmers to label their products as non-GMO rather than requiring genetically modified food to be labeled.

Requiring labeling could prove difficult to enforce, he said.

But declaring food as non-GMO could help farmers sell their products, Onishi said.

“It’s sort of like organic labeling,” he said. “You’re able to add value by saying your product is GMO free.”

Rep. Clift Tsuji, another member of the committee, introduced the bill that would allow for voluntary labeling of non-GMO food.

Tsuji, D-Hilo, said he is concerned about the impact a labeling requirement could have on food producers, which is why he isn’t pursuing mandatory labeling of GMO products. But he noted consumers could use some peace of mind.

“This bill can help ease their concerns,” he said. “I think it’s very important from the producer’s end to the consumer’s end.”

Tsuji said he is opposed to the bill requiring permitting for the development or importation of GMO products, noting it could have a detrimental effect on the floral industry.

“We should tread very carefully on what we really want to do and the intent,” he said.

Taro farmers could also see some help from legislation aimed at opening more land for taro production while also reducing the cost of state land leases.

The state imports 1,800,000 pounds of taro annually, despite its long tradition of being farmed in Hawaii, according to the taro legislation.

Issues identified by the bills and the Taro Security and Purity Task Force include the availability and the cost of suitable farm land.

The legislation aims to address those issues by limiting the cost of leasing state land for taro production to $100 per acre, a prohibition on the Board of Land and Natural Resources from disturbing existing taro lands, and creating a taro land classification.

The task force in its 2010 report noted that taro production is a “shadow of its former prosperity.”

Tsuji said the state should support taro production like it does other crops, such as coffee.

“I think it’s very important and it should not be overlooked like other agriculture endeavours in the state of Hawaii,” he said.