By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
An Idaho dairyman who bought the largest dairy in the state is growing genetically modified corn on state leasehold land in Hamakua, and a number of residents are upset about it, saying it violates the Hamakua Agriculture Plan.
County Council Chairman Dominic Yagong said Saturday that he has spoken to Big Island Dairy LLC owner Steve Whitesides, and that Whitesides “has been upfront” about growing GMO corn as feedstock on about 700 acres of land near Ookala.
“He said that if they were not to grow GMO corn but instead went to the feed store to buy feed that the corn in that bag would be GMO corn,” Yagong said Saturday morning while talking to about 20 protesters who lined both sides of Highway 19 by the cornfield at the 30-mile marker. Yagong, who represents Hamakua, said he was also told by Whitesides that GMO corn was already being grown on the site by the previous owner when he acquired the lease.
Whitesides bought the former Island Dairy Inc. from Bahman Sadeghi for $13 million late last year. The land is part of 2,081 acres Island Dairy signed a 35-year-lease on in 1998 and which Whitesides’ company assumed in November. Reports at the time of the purchase said Island Dairy had a herd of 900 milking cows.
“We’ve talked to each other on a number of occasions,” Yagong said. “He’s been gracious and has shown a willingness to sit down and talk, so I’m gonna facilitate some of the community members and Mr. Whitesides and give them an opportunity to express their concerns with regards to the planting of GMO corn here in Hamakua. … I told him that we have deep soil here in Hamakua and that he has the option to grow conventional corn and, I think, get the kind of yield that you do need.”
The protest was organized by GMO Free Hawaii as part of the “Occupy Monsanto Global Week of Action,” said farmer and anti-GMO activist Eden Peart, who called the cornfield “a genetic crime scene” and said that GMO crops could post health risks.
“Around the world, people are documenting genetic crime scenes, and we’ve got one here in Ookala. Big Island Dairy is growing GMO corn here in defiance of the Hamakua Ag Plan and it has to stop right away,” she said. One stated objective of the county-commissioned plan, which was completed by May 2006 but has not become law, is to “avoid contamination of crops, seed supplies, public lands, and native ecosystems by GMOs.”
Protesters held up signs for passing motorists with slogans such as “no GMO” and “GMO = poison milk (and) poison ‘aina.”
“I agree with everything they say,” said 87-year-old Marva Joy Bennett, who grew up on a small dairy farm in Utah. She held up a sign that stated: “We fed our cows hay not GMO corn.”
State Department of Agriculture Chairman Russell Kokubun, whose department administers the lease on the Ookala land, confirmed Sunday that the corn being grown there is a genetically modified strain for cattle feed.
“Yes, we need to be careful about what’s growing here and all, but I think we also need to be open minded and basing our decisions on science, in terms of what’s good for the land as well as the livestock,” Kokubun said.
He that the state “does not get into specifics” about crops grown on state-leased ag lands.
“Usually, the lessees come in with a farm plan on what they intend to grow, but for us, as long as it’s by a bona fide farmer to grow agricultural crops, we don’t get into what you can or cannot grow.”
“There are only, like, two major dairies left in the state,” Kokubun continued, referring to Big Island Dairy and Cloverleaf Dairy, which is also a Big Island agribusiness. “One of the real issues for them, and for any protein producer, actually, or livestock producer, is the cost of feed. … It’s the high cost of feed is amongst the major causes of livestock producers giving up. So the idea of us being able to produce our livestock feed is one of the keys to insuring that our livestock industry will be able to continue here.”
Asked if he believes the only way that could be accomplished is by genetically modified crops, Kokubun replied: “No, we’re open to all ideas.”
“One of the big things now is a byproduct of biofuel development with algae or jatropha,” he said. “… Once you extract the oil, the residue — it’s called cake — is very high in protein. So we think that’s going to be a boon for our livestock feed in the future.”
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.