By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Hawaii County Councilwoman Margaret Wille has introduced a bill that would ban most genetically modified crops from the Big Island.
The ban would apply to any agricultural products with altered genes that don’t already exist on the island. Rainbow papaya, a modified crop widely used in Puna to combat the ringspot virus, and other transgenic produce already grown here would be grandfathered.
Research at the University of Hawaii at Hilo and other educational institutions would be exempt.
Food products containing transgenic ingredients, such as modified corn and soy, would still be allowed.
Violations would be penalized with a $1,000 fine.
Wille said she introduced the bill partly to keep the large biotech companies that grow transgenic seed for corn and a few other crops on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Molokai, from moving to the Big Island.
Preventing other modified crops from becoming established would also help limit cross-contamination of non-transgenic crops, a major concern for activists opposed to genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, and help ensure consumers that crops grown here are free of genetic alterations, she said.
“I’m just trying to create a specific identify for this island,” said Wille, who represents Kohala.
“And we’re really the only island not so polluted or taken over by GMOs.”
The proposed ban, to be heard by the council’s Committee on Public Safety and Mass Transit at 9 a.m. Tuesday in Hilo, comes after several bills seeking to further regulate or label GMO products failed to pass the state Legislature.
Proponents of transgenic crops say they can be the only viable option in combating some plant diseases, while also offering ways for farmers to improve their products and stay ahead in the global marketplace.
The Rainbow papaya has been touted as a GMO success story, allowing Big Island growers to come back from the brink of extinction.
Still, GMO critics say the transgenic seeds cannot be controlled, and have contaminated non-modified papaya.
The county Department of Environmental Management would be responsible for enforcing the ban.
Dora Beck, acting director, couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.
Wille said she hadn’t talked to Beck about the proposal. She said she doesn’t think it would be a “big burden” for the department.
“I’m working to be supportive of that department as a whole,” Wille said.
While the bill does allow for exemptions, any farmer or rancher using transgenic crops would have to prove that they are “physically contained” by providing photographs and other documentation.
The proposal suggests that introduction of a transgenic crop may be tolerated if its non-modified version is in “imminent danger of extinction.”
Wille said she is open to use of a modified crop if it’s the only option for farmers, but added that language might need to be clarified.
“I’m not saying this ordinance is perfect,” she said. “I want to hear what others have to say.”
This bill isn’t the first time the council has taken on the GMO issue.
In 2008, the county passed a ban on GMO coffee and taro.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.