By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Hawaii Island’s food fight is about to get even more messy.
After sitting on the sidelines during the last three months, South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford has entered the debate over genetically modified organisms with her own bill that would ban all transgenic crops, including modified papaya.
Her legislation will compete with a new anti-GMO bill introduced by Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille, who first sparked the debate over modified crops last May when she brought forward Bill 79. Wille withdrew that bill, which banned GMO crops except for papaya, Aug. 6 in anticipation of drafting a new version.
Both new bills, Bill 109 and Bill 113, will be up for discussion next week when the council’s Committee on Public Safety and Mass Transit once again reconvenes to take on the controversial issue following several lengthy public comment sessions.
That is, if it gets to discussion.
Since both bills are new, the committee will be required to take comments from the public.
Ford, who chairs the committee, is again expecting plenty of it.
The Sept. 4 meeting begins at 1:30 p.m. in Hilo. Ford said she expects testimony to last until the evening and be continued again to another day, possibly Sept. 6.
“Every time, the public has a right to testify,” she said. “So we’re starting over again.”
Since Bill 79 was introduced, the committee has held public comment sessions over four days on GMOs, some lasting eight hours or more.
Typically, each person is given three minutes to speak. Ford said she will reduce that down to two minutes.
Ford will also have to give up the chair position since her bill is on the agenda. Wille, as committee vice chair, also will not be able to take it.
As a result, the council will have to vote on a new committee chair for the day.
Ford said she believes re-starting public comment shouldn’t be too much for the council to handle.
“Yes, the council can handle it,” she said. “Whether they will or not is another issue.”
But why two bills?
Ford said she chose to introduce her own bill after Wille said during the Aug. 6 meeting that she was withdrawing Bill 79.
Even though Wille said she planned to bring back another bill, Ford said she didn’t want to risk letting the issue flounder.
“Once she withdrew the bill against my advice, I said, ‘That’s it. I don’t know if she will do it again,’” Ford said. “I can’t trust that. I’m getting a tremendous amount of pressure from the anti-GMO contingency.”
Still, Ford said she doesn’t plan to withdraw her bill.
“The council can vote it down and they can amend it,” she said.
Unless they are withdrawn, both bills will be sent to the council level after the committee votes on a recommendation.
Wille said she is fine with having the two bills considered at the same time, but hopes the process doesn’t get dragged out too long.
“We need something to get through and pass,” she said.
Her new bill would allow GMO papaya to be grown as well as other transgenic crops that are in an enclosed structure. All other GMOs would be banned.
Both bills require a GMO crop registry and provide for fees and penalties.
Ford’s bill would allow GMO research at federally licensed facilities as long as plants are located in a biosafety level 3 containment facility.
Ford said she expects her bill to be amended to provide an exemption for papaya, the large majority of which is modified to be resistant to the ringspot virus.
“I doubt very much it will come out at the end with that,” she said. “It’s probably going to be amended and that’s fine with me.”
Ford said she thinks there should be no GMO on the island but included a ban on transgenic papaya in her bill because she believes that’s what most of the people who testified want.
“This is not necessarily about what I want, but this is about what the people are asking for,” she said. “I’m willing to put it up for discussion.”
Ross Sibucao, Hawaii Papaya Industry Association president, said there are more than 80 papaya farms on the island.
If Ford’s bill is adopted in its current form, it would put each of them out of business, he said.
The bill would give them 30 months to stop growing GMO papaya.
Sibucao said papaya farmers will be at the next meeting again to testify against the bills.
He said it’s tough for many of them to keep coming back and take time away from the farm to testify, noting they don’t get any compensation from the HPIA or other industry groups for lost work.
“Money is being lost because a majority of the farmers are self employed,” Sibucao said. “Whenever they’re not on the farm, there’s no workers to run the business basically.”
Papaya farmers began to switch to the transgenic Rainbow and SunUp varieties in the late 1990s after the ringspot virus devastated the largely Puna-based industry.
Sibucao said they would again have to contend with the virus if they had to switch back to non-GMO papaya.
Ford, who grows about a quarter acre of non-GMO papaya, said she believes the farms could survive without using transgenic varieties.
“I’m not trying to shut down farming or papaya farmers,” she said.
Ford said farmers could have a better chance of avoiding the virus by growing more than one type of crop.
Sibucao acknowledged that large commercial operations that focus on one crop are more susceptible, but added that the farming practice can’t simply be eliminated.
“In this world we live with, monoculture is the most efficient way to feed the world,” he said.
Both bills would require a $100 registration fee for farms with GMO crops. Ford’s bill comes with a sunset clause that would ban all GMO crops after 60 months.
Both apply fines of up to $1,000 per day per violation. Ford’s bill would also add an option of up to 30 days in jail.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.