By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
With a sense of urgency largely unseen over the last five months, the Hawaii County Council expeditiously passed an amended bill to restrict genetically altered crops during its first reading Wednesday.
The 6-2 vote, following a 6.5-hour public comment session Tuesday, occurred after about 30 minutes of discussion, which focused on changes proposed by Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille while ignoring those submitted by Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi.
Onishi and Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan voted no. Puna Councilman Zendo Kern was absent due to an illness.
Wille’s amendments change her bill to include an emergency exemption clause and allows the identity of farms that grow exempted transgenic crops to be kept private.
The vote prompted the audience at the West Hawaii Civic Center to erupt in applause with repeated shouts of “Bravo!”
The bill will need one more vote as well as Mayor Billy Kenoi’s signature to become law. The next vote is scheduled for Nov. 6.
The legislation, while not banning all transgenic crops, is intended to limit their spread on the Big Island. The isle has the most agricultural land in the state but has not been selected by biotech companies to host seed farms, as seen on Kauai, Oahu and Maui County.
Wille, who introduced the bill, believes Hawaii County needs a law to prevent those companies from coming here as well as protect farmers from cross-pollination and residents from the spraying of chemicals.
The development of herbicide-resistant crops has been a major source of criticism of the technology and the companies that produce them.
Opponents of transgenic crops, typically referred to as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, say this leads to increased spraying of chemicals as well as the development of “super weeds.”
Some critics of the bill have noted that it wouldn’t stop the spraying of herbicides on the isle, only further adoption of resistant crops, and they argue that modified varieties can reduce the use of chemicals in certain cases.
The bill would ban only the open-air use of transgenic crops with exemptions for papaya and other modified crops grown here. That is believed to be limited to the Big Island Dairy on the Hamakua Coast, which grows transgenic corn for feed.
Still, bill opponents argue the legislation will prevent farmers from adopting modified strains that may be able to fight pests and disease, as well as help reduce costs.
Wille argued the bill would still allow for genetic research at the University of Hawaii at Hilo as long as crops are restricted to a green house or research facility.
“We want research to be in a controlled environment for obvious reasons,” she said.
So far, the state Attorney General’s Office has yet to provide an opinion as to whether the bill creates any conflicts with the state’s authority.
Eric Weinert, general manager of Calavo Growers, told the Tribune-Herald he intends to file a lawsuit challenging the bill if it is adopted.
The bill would also require farms growing exempted GMO crops to register with the county at the cost of $100 per year.
Violators would be fined $1,000 per day.
Information submitted could be kept confidential under Wille’s amendment.
The emergency exemption would allow farmers to choose a modified variety to fight problems such as disease.
The exemption, which would come with “reasonable restrictions and conditions,” would expire within five years.
Some testifiers spoke against it Tuesday.
Ka‘u-South Kona Councilwoman Brenda Ford also criticized it Wednesday, calling it a loophole.
“I think it dramatically weakens the bill,” she said.
Onishi’s proposed amendments would have specifically exempted the horticulture industry and university from the bill.
The council is also considering forming an ad hoc committee to study the GMO issue further if the bill is adopted.
The council first took on the issue last May, and has held meetings, mostly lengthy sessions in the Public Safety and Mass Transit Committee, over 11 days since.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.