By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Genetic engineering opponents turned out in force Tuesday before the Hawaii County Council to support a bill that could determine the future of agriculture on the Big Island.
The bill would prevent farmers from planting any genetically modified crops not already grown on the island, and has gained enthusiastic support from critics of the biotech industry.
“I don’t want my kids eating it. I don’t want it in our Hawaii,” said Monique Cobb-Adams, speaking from Waimea.
“I think this type of frankenscience doesn’t belong here.”
More than 100 people from across the island signed up to speak before the council’s Committee on Public Safety and Mass Transit. A large majority spoke in favor of the bill, which will be discussed again at the committee’s May 29 meeting.
Much of the criticism focused on the biotech companies that have set up farms in every other county in the state to grow seed.
Most of the seeds, primarily for corn, are genetically modified to increase crop yields or lower costs, such as by making plants resistant to herbicides or harmful insects.
Worth about $243 million, that industry has become the largest in the state’s agriculture sector, fueled by the widespread adoption of genetically engineered crops throughout the United States.
The companies, such as Monsanto and Syngenta, benefit from Hawaii’s four growing seasons, but have not established operations on the Big Isle.
Many of the testifiers said they want to keep this industry out of the county, believing it has negative health effects yet to be fully acknowledged and leads to the expanded use of some chemicals.
“Our island should not be used as a laboratory,” said Cheryl King, speaking from Kona.
King said she isn’t sure if genetically engineered crops are bad for human health, but added she believes the risk is great.
“Once GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are unleashed they are here to stay,” she said.
Some proposed making the island a “Noah’s Ark” for non-GMO crops.
Scientists and representatives of the island’s agriculture industry warned that the bill would prevent farmers from benefiting from modified crops that are resistant to disease.
Jason Moniz, representing the Hamakua Farm Bureau, requested the bill be killed, saying it threatens the “well-being” of farmers and ranchers.
“Frankly, I’m sick and tired of having to defend my life’s work,” he said.
Such a bill would have prevented farmers from adopting the transgenic Rainbow papaya in the late 1990s, bill opponents said.
The papaya is resistant to the ringspot virus that devastated the industry, and is credited for saving the largely Puna-based farmers.
“I strongly encourage you to educate yourself further about the potential benefits of genetically engineered crops,” said Susan Miyasaka, an agronomist with the University of Hawaii.
“They can improve the quality and safety and nutritional value of foods for human consumption,” Miyasaka added.
“We have all eaten them and I feel that I am healthy, and I’m against this bill.”
The bill would allow Rainbow papaya, which makes up about 75 percent of the state’s papaya industry, to still be grown, but farmers would have to prove that the crops are “physically contained” by following U.S. Department of Agriculture Level-3 biosafety procedures.
GMO opponents say they are concerned about cross-pollination between transgenic and non-transgenic plants.
Scientists say the cross-pollination rate between Rainbow and non-GMO papaya is nearly zero for hermaphrodite plants, which make up nearly all of the crops in commercial production. A study by the Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo found that female plants located adjacent to Rainbow papaya had a gene transfer rate of about 67 percent.
Only the seeds of the pollinated non-transgenic plant may carry the Rainbow genes, not the fruit itself, said Dennis Gonsalves, the former PBARC director, in an interview.
In his written testimony, Gonsalves, who helped develop the Rainbow papaya, said he was “saddened” by the bill.
“… an action like Bill 79 would only serve to stymie research and prevent efforts to help agriculture,” he wrote.
The Hawaii Papaya Industry Association submitted a petition signed by 38 farmers against the bill, calling it flawed, partially for requiring biosafety procedures, typically used for potentially life-threatening diseases, for existing transgenic crops.
Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille, who introduced the bill, said she is open to amending the bill to address some of the concerns.
“We want the bill to be pono,” she said.
The bill would be the first anti-GMO legislation adopted in the county since a ban on transgenic coffee and taro was adopted in 2008.
In regards to the large turnout, Wille said it shows how important the issue is to many isle residents.
“We finally have a voice and ability … to have an impact on our future,” she said.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.