Experts tackle GMO


By TOM CALLIS

Tribune-Herald staff writer

A day of fact-finding by the Hawaii County Council on genetically altered crops ended without a resolution Monday, ensuring that the marathon debate would continue at least another week.

The council adjourned until Oct. 1, following nearly eight hours of discussion regarding Bill 113, during which council members poured over questions while addressing experts on topics ranging from the plight of bees to the use of pesticides and herbicides.

At times, the meeting was a re-run of past sessions with similar arguments for and against genetically modified organisms being made. But it nonetheless presented council members with one of the first opportunities to ask significant questions regarding biology and agriculture since legislation to restrict transgenic crops was first introduced in May.

Among the experts were University of Hawaii scientists; Dennis Gonsalves, the creator of transgenic papaya; Kauai County Councilman Gary Hooser; Walter Ritte of Molokai; a naturopathy practitioner; a gynecologist who referred to herself while speaking to a reporter as a “mermaid against GMO”; and one nationally prominent GMO critic, Jeffrey Smith.

Hooser, who has introduced his own anti-GMO bill, and Ritte both commented on the presence of biotech companies on their islands, believing that their farming practices, including the use of chemicals, lead to human health problems and damage the environment.

“It’s out of control, quite frankly,” said Hooser, who focused on the application of restricted-use herbicides on transgenic crops.

The most authoritative GMO critic was Smith, who runs the Institute for Responsible Technology and has authored the books, “Seeds of Deception” and “Genetic Roulette.” Both texts are widely read by GMO opponents.

Speaking via Skype from Arizona, Smith told the council that local governments need to step in where he believes federal regulatory agencies have failed in limiting impacts of GMO crops on the food supply.

“I really applaud these efforts by this council to take responsibility to pick up the slack where others have dropped it,” he said.

During his back-and-forth with the council, he expressed concerns over the safety of GMO food shared by many of its critics, including fears that the modified genes can interact with human DNA and increase the risk of illness.

Smith also said he believes regulatory agencies have a revolving door with the biotech industry, leaving oversight and industry-promoted science as untrustworthy.

“It’s basically tobacco science,” Smith said.

He also expressed concern over the use of the virus-resistant GMO papaya on the Big Isle, which makes up the bulk of the crop, believing that the viral coat protein it uses can cause harm to people.

Gonsalves dismissed that statement when speaking to reporters outside the council chambers. He said the same viral protein is located in infected fruit and at a much higher level, noting that its safety is not questioned.

“Everyone was eating virus-infected papaya in the 1990s,” he said, a statement he also repeated to the council. “And now you want to do feeding studies?”

Gonsalves has been a frequent defender of the modified papaya before the council, arguing it is safe for human consumption and has helped sustain an industry that otherwise would not exist.

Several papaya farmers, appearing concerned, sat through the meeting but weren’t called upon to speak this time.

The bill would provide an exemption for papaya, but the growers feel unfairly lumped in with the arguments against big biotech and the industry remains opposed to the bill.

One papaya grower, Orlando Manuel, told the Tribune-Herald that the wide-ranging discussion on GMOs, involving both genetics and chemical agriculture, muddles the issue.

“It’s all mixed up,” he said.

“You hear pesticides, you hear Monsanto. It’s like a stew.”

“Monsanto has nothing to do with papaya,” Manuel added.

The council also resurrected a bill defeated earlier this month.

Introduced by South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford, Bill 109 would have provided a blanket ban on GMOs, overseen by the county Department of Environmental Management.

County Code requires any legislation involving the department to be looked at by the county Environmental Commission, said Council Chair J Yoshimoto, causing the council to revive it for further review.

On Monday, Eric Weinert, of Calavo Growers, told the Tribune-Herald he had filed a complaint with the county Ethics Commission against Ford, claiming it was a conflict of interest for her to have introduced the legislation, which would have eliminated GMO papaya. Ford said she grows about a quarter acre of non-GMO papaya for commercial purposes.

Ford, who had made note of her papaya trees during a previous council meeting, disagrees.

“I don’t see it as a conflict of interest,” she said.

While acknowledging she has a personal stake in keeping her papaya from being cross-pollinated with modified types, Ford said that wasn’t the only reason for introducing it.

“Nobody else wants their crops to be contaminated either,” she said.

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

 

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