By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
“I’m here to save my job,” the woman explained as she waved to a honking line of vehicles crawling by the front of the Hawaii County Building on Aupuni Street in Hilo, shortly after 2 p.m. Friday.
The Panaewa papaya packer of nine years, who would only give her first name — Diana — said that she had joined with other agriculture industry workers to voice their opposition to Bill 79, a measure being proposed by County Councilwoman Margaret Wille that would limit the use of genetically modified crops on Hawaii Island.
“We want them to vote no on Bill 79,” she said.
“It’s about freedom of choice,” read her sign.
Proponents of the bill say that genetically modified organisms (GMO) pose a threat to the food supply, and the bill will serve to prevent newer forms of GMOs from being used here.
Meanwhile, opponents of the bill say that GMO safety concerns have little scientific proof to back them up, and any ban would limit business, preventing various agriculture industries from using the tools made available to them through science.
The majority of the several dozen sign wavers present at the county building Friday represented the papaya industry, which was almost wiped out by the ringspot virus in
the 1990s, before the GMO papaya varieties Rainbow and SunUp were introduced by University of Hawaii researchers.
The protesters held up various signs featuring smiling, neon-yellow papaya characters throwing up shakas, with sayings like “Da Best,” “Safe to Eat” and “Save Our Future.”
Despite the industry’s heavy support Friday, transgenic papaya is one of the GMO products presently found on the island that would be exempt from the proposed ban. Under the proposal, the propagation of additional transgenic crops would be prohibited, and existing transgenic farms, like those growing modified papaya, would be grandfathered but face additional regulations.
Eric Weinert, one of the organizers of the rally, serves as general manager for the island’s largest exporter of papaya, Calavo Growers Inc. He said Friday that his industry is safe, and that Wille’s bill serves only to divide the community and cast a negative light on GMO products.
“If this bill passes, it will stigmatize papaya,” he said. “We’re for free choice. We want the tools available to us, we want them available for all farmers, conventional and organic. We want consumers to be able to make the choice. … To ban it (GMO) is just wrong.”
Weinert added that he believes much of the opposition to GMO is a result of a general dissatisfaction with the food supply chain in Hawaii, and he recommended that the county instead focus on forming a task force to study food self-reliance and sustainability.
“Let’s focus on making economics work for us,” he said.
Other industries represented Friday included Hawaii cattlemen, flower growers, and banana growers. Many outfitted large pickup trucks and livestock trailers with signs and drove around and around the block, honking their horns in support for the small band of sign wavers.
“A lot of our supporters aren’t able to testify, and to come out and show their support,” Weinert said. “They’re working their farms, trying to make a living.”
Laupahoehoe resident Judi Steinman added that she believes many farmers are afraid to come out against the bill for fear of reprisals.
“Many of them feel threatened,” she said. “That’s not aloha.”
There was a smattering of commentary from various representatives on the other side of the issue, in the form of people standing on the periphery of the rally holding their own signs aloft, or shouting out their thoughts in counterpoint to the slogans coming from the anti-ban protesters.
“I’m allergic to all these things!” said an elderly man holding a large list of foods — including peanuts, watermelon, grapes, apples, carrots, cabbage, and chocolate. “My doctor said I got colon cancer because I was allergic to these things. … That’s because of GMO. … I can’t drink beer anymore, either.”
Those protesting the proposed ban said they couldn’t understand such arguments.
“What makes him think GMO had anything to do with his allergies?” asked one man.
Another supporter of the GMO ban, Henry Leong, said he was backing Wille’s bill because he wants to protect taro from being genetically modified.
“Most people don’t know how to grow taro correctly, don’t know how to take care of it, but I do,” he said. “I don’t want them to GMO taro. It doesn’t need it. We gotta save our taro.”
As the debate continued, Hawaii County Director of Research and Development Laverne Omori told the Tribune-Herald this week that enforcing the proposed ban would be a larger undertaking than that for which her department is prepared.
With 12 staff, including one vacant specialist position that would act as a liaison between farmers and government agencies, she said she didn’t believe her employees would have the time necessary to enforce the bill.
She did not indicate that she would refuse the task if called on to do it, but she did say she had spoken with Wille about her misgivings on the subject.
“Enforcement is not something our department has done,” she said. “It will take a lot of staff time, especially if a new bill comes up. … I don’t want to spend a lot of department time on enforcement when it really is not one of the responsibilities of our department.”
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.