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Judge hears GMO case arguments

Does requiring farmers growing genetically modified crops to register with Hawaii County result in the release of proprietary information?

That’s the question Hilo Circuit Judge Greg Nakamura will consider after hearing from witnesses and attorneys on both sides of the issue Monday.

The county’s registration program for genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, is on hold due to a court order Nakamura granted March 7, but attorneys for the plaintiffs are seeking to end the program permanently.

Such a move is not expected to end the county’s ban on the growing or testing of transgenic crops in an open-air environment, but would make it more difficult for the county to keep track of existing GMO growers, who are exempted.

Honolulu attorney Margery Bronster, representing the plaintiffs, Hawaii Papaya Industry Association President Ross Sibucao and another unidentified papaya grower, sought to raise questions over the registration program.

Bronster focused on how the county Department of Research and Development would handle information, including types of crops grown and other farming practices, and the amount of direction, or lack thereof, the County Council provided.

Research and Development Director Laverne Omori said repeatedly she would use discretion and rely on the county’s legal team when considering the release of information to the public, but acknowledged the office had lacked clear rules and procedures for the new program.

“I would try to keep as much information as confidential as possible,” Omori said in response to a question from Bronster.

While requiring detailed information from exempted growers, the GMO ban does allow the county to avoid disclosure of the name of registrants, exact location of the farms and any information that may “frustrate” the county’s attempts to obtain information.

But how the county would determine what information, in addition to name and location of farms, to withhold, remained unclear.

Omori said she would have liked more direction from the council and more time to develop rules. The law went into effect in December, but farmers were given 90 days to register.

“We will have further conversations (on procedures),” she said.

Sibucao also took the stand.

The farmer grows both transgenic and non-transgenic papaya in Puna.

The transgenic papaya is resistant to the ringspot virus, which devastated the industry in the 1990s.

Despite already speaking publicly against the GMO ban, Sibucao said he fears that release of information about his farm could make him a target for vandalism.

“It’s my livelihood,” he said. “You grow these trees from babies on up.

“To have them vandalized, it’s fearful.”

Sibucao said someone drove a truck over four of his trees a few months ago. Other incidents of papaya vandalism have also occurred.

Last year, about 100 papaya trees were destroyed on a Kapoho farm. The same farm lost five acres to machete-wielding vandals in 2011. In 2010, vandals cut down 8,500 papaya trees on another farm.

Michael Udovic, deputy corporation counsel, questioned if Sibucao knew whether anti-GMO activists were responsible for the incidents. He acknowledged he did not know.

Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille, who introduced the anti-GMO bill, attended the hearing but did not testify. She said afterward the registry is needed for disclosure and that she thinks general information about where GMO crops are grown should be made public.

She also said she believes the registration part of the law is clear enough.

“I was really clear on the registry,” said Wille, who is also an attorney. “You don’t need rules if something is explicit.”

As of March 5, the deadline to register, Research and Development received 210 registrants. The department also requested non-GMO growers register.

Bronster asked that the unnamed plaintiff, known as John Doe, be able to testify behind closed doors. Nakamura declined that request.

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

 

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