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Council votes against full GMO ban again


It was deja vu for the Hawaii County Council on Tuesday as it voted against a full ban on genetically modified crops while meeting in committee.

The vote was the second time the council’s Public Safety and Mass Transit Committee had considered Councilwoman Brenda Ford’s bill.

The result was the same: 1 aye, and a negative recommendation to the full council.

Ford, who chairs the committee, said she didn’t expect a different result but nonetheless was required to bring the bill back to the committee after the Environmental Management Commission reviewed it. The commission also gave it a negative recommendation.

“I have no illusions about what’s going to happen,” she said following comments from the public.

The vote came about two months after the council passed a bill banning open-air use and open-air testing of modified crops, with exemptions for altered crops already grown on the island. That ordinance is currently being implemented.

Though with fewer people, the public testimony was also largely a repeat of past sessions on the controversial topic, with opponents of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, urging the council to “protect the aina” by banning biotech companies and their products.

Some testifiers also referenced pending battles in the state Legislature regarding GMOs, and fearing attempts to rollback efforts to increase regulation at the local level, requested the council go with a full ban.

There are several GMO-related bills that have been introduced this legislative session. Some, including those sponsored by Big Isle Sens. Russell Ruderman and Josh Green, seek to label modified food or ban GMO crops.

Passing the full ban without eliminating the existing ordinance could have made things more difficult for GMO opponents, as it might have resulted in both anti-GMO measures essentially cancelling each other out, Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida told the council members.

Ford said that wasn’t her intent, but hoped that parts of her bill could be incorporated into the existing ordinance through amendments.

“Perhaps we need to strengthen what we have in place with some of the provisions in this bill,” she said.

While explaining their no votes, several council members said they were ready to let the existing ordinance be put to use.

The vote was the first time the council had taken up the GMO topic since a proposal to create an ad hoc committee to study the issue, following implementation of the anti-GMO ordinance, failed last month.

The ordinance requires exempted growers, such as those who grow transgenic papaya, to register with the county Department of Research and Development.

Anyone conducting GMO research must also register.

That includes the University of Hawaii and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center.

PBARC could see the largest impact, as it appears to be involved in the most genetic research on the island.

According to a list of projects on the USDA’s website, recent or ongoing genetic research at the Hilo-based facility includes work with anthuriums, tomatoes, lettuce, papayas and orchids. The projects typically involve developing resistance to disease and improving shelf life.

PBARC is also working on a freckle-free papaya for local growers by breeding SunUp papaya, which is transgenic and has resistance to the ringspot virus, with a non-transgenic variety that lacks blemishes.

But impacts to the facility remain unclear. The law bans open-air testing but PBARC officials have been hesitant to comment how the law may change their operations, saying the matter still remains under review.

“We’re still in the middle of evaluating the impact,” Marisa Wall, PBARC director, told the Tribune-Herald on Tuesday.

So far, research has not been stopped or put on hold, she said.

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

 

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