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GMO battle finds way to state Capitol

The Big Island’s recent fight about genetically engineered crops is spilling onto the floor of the state Capitol.

On Thursday, state lawmakers filed a bill that would prohibit counties from restricting farming practices, including the use of genetically modified organisms, and is seen as a response to GMO-related laws Hawaii and Kauai counties adopted last year.

Introduced by Rep. Richard Onishi, and sponsored by four other Big Isle representatives, House Bill 2506 amends the state’s “right to farm” law by stating local governments shall not enact laws restricting the “right of farmers and ranchers” to use agriculture technology and other practices not prohibited by federal or state law.

The bill is not retroactive but nonetheless might allow farmers to challenge the county’s new law restricting the use of transgenic crops, while preventing other counties from passing similar legislation.

Lincoln Ashida, the county’s Corporation Counsel, said he couldn’t say for sure whether the bill would pre-empt the county’s GMO law but added, “it appears that this is what the legislation is intended to do.”

Critics call the bill an attempt to take away home rule, but Onishi, an East Hawaii Democrat, said he thinks the same laws should apply to farmers across the state.

“It’s not about pre-empting the counties, it’s not about GMOs,” said Onishi, vice chair of the House Agriculture Committee. “It’s about supporting farmers.”

Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille, who introduced the county’s law restricting the use of transgenic crops, said she sees it as a clear attempt to protect companies that produce modified crops.

“My thoughts are that these biotech corporations don’t like local governments to intervene in their agendas,” she said.

The Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation requested the legislation, also to be introduced in the Senate. Chris Manfredi, Farm Bureau acting president, said the bill is in response to Hawaii and Kauai counties’ GMO laws, which he thinks would be “rendered null and void.” He defended the approach by arguing farmers should face a “level playing field” across the state.

Manfredi also said the bill is not meant to benefit biotech companies that host seed farms on other isles.

“It’s about all agriculture,” he said. “Big ag, small ag all need to coexist within the community. It’s not about an us versus them.”

Though the technology remains controversial, farmers adopted modified crops for their ability to combat plant viruses and tolerate herbicides. On the Big Island, they are mostly employed by papaya growers who use varieties resistant to the ringspot virus. Ranchers, banana growers and the horticulture industry in the state also hope to use the technology, either to combat disease or lower costs.

Critics say the practice threatens non-GMO growers through cross-pollination and mainly benefits large biotech corporations. They also question the safety of food produced from the crops, though studies supporting those concerns continue to be strongly criticized or refuted.

Wille said GMO opponents should not be seen as anti-farmer, and criticized the state and federal governments for not doing enough to regulate transgenic crops.

“I was protecting farmers,” she said. “I was responding to non-GMO farming, and there’s absolutely no debate that all crops that are pollinated by wind and insects are affected.”

The Legislature, including the Big Island delegation, remains divided on the issue. Numerous bills have been introduced to ban or further regulate GMO crops, some of which are sponsored by Big Isle lawmakers.

Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, has been outspoken critic of genetic engineering and said he stands by the county’s ability to regulate the industry. He also criticized other isle lawmakers for supporting the bill.

“I think it’s a cynical attempt take away home rule,” Ruderman said. “The situation is not the same on every island.”

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