By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The crowds were smaller but no less determined Wednesday as the Hawaii County Council started over with testimony on legislation to ban or restrict genetically altered crops.
The meeting was the first in a month on the controversial issue, and one of many since the ongoing discussion of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, started again last May.
The council, meeting as the Committee on Public Safety and Mass Transit, started from scratch with taking comments after Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille withdrew her bill to restrict use of GMOs last month to introduce a simpler version.
But matters only got more complicated as Ka‘u/South Kona Councilwoman Brenda Ford brought forward her own legislation that goes a step further by banning all GMO crops after 30 months.
The county meeting was recessed until 8 a.m. Friday after nearly five hours of testimony.
While the 80 people who signed up to testify Wednesday fell short of the hundreds who showed up at back-to-back meetings in July, those present continued to press the council just as earnestly to take action or none at all.
GMO opponents, who see the dual bills as a means to push back against big biotech, appeared ready to sustain the momentum they’ve gained over the last four months, with one testifier stating, “The public is not growing tired. We are galvanized.”
“This is my third time testifying on this subject, and I’ll be back again and again and again,” said another testifier, Barbara Kahn-Langer, noting concerns over the health and safety of GMO food.
“Companies like Monsanto are only out for their profit just like big tobacco companies were,” she said.
“They aren’t going to tell you the truth.”
Andrea Rosanoff, a nutrition researcher from Pahoa, noted the increased use of chemicals with the development of herbicide-resistant crops by the main biotech companies, including Monsanto, which have seed farms in the other counties in the state.
Yet, depending on how the legislation moves forward, those with the most to lose may not be mainland corporations, but Big Island papaya farmers who find battle lines in a global food fight being drawn through their fields.
The farmers rely mostly on GMO papaya made resistant to the ringspot virus. A few came to testify in support of them Wednesday.
Thong Teng Neo said the discussion of the issue has led to a drop in papaya sales, with uncertainty growing around the crop.
“We’re seeing our friends suffer,” he said. “Where is the aloha ohana?”
Lorie Farrell said the issue is about trust.
“Do you trust Hawaii farmers, the papaya growers and ranchers that stand before you today?” she asked. “There’s no shame in growing commodity crops,” Farrell added. “In fact, without them, I couldn’t feed my family today.”
While some had spoken several times before, reiterating their concerns with transgenic crops or touting their benefits, there were a few new faces at the meeting.
Martha Crouch, a retired biology professor from Indiana, was visiting the Big Island on vacation and chose to come speak to the council members.
Crouch said she became involved in genetic engineering in 1980 and later became concerned with the direction it was going, including control of seeds by biotech companies and use of herbicide-resistant crops. She has since spoken out about concerns over impact of these plants on human health and the environment.
“Now is the time to act to prohibit genetically engineered plants in Hawaii County,” Crouch said.
Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-
BREAKDOWN OF THE BILLS
Bill 109 (Brenda Ford):
- Bans all GMO crops 30 months after adoption.
- Allows for GMO research in federally licensed facilities that use certain containment procedures
- Creates a GMO registry, overseen by the county’s Department of Environmental Management, with fees of $100
- Penalties: Fines of up to $1,000 per day per violation. Jail time of up to 30 days possible.
Bill 113 (Margaret Wille):
- Bans open-air cultivation of GMO crops.
- Exempts GMO papaya and other transgenic crops already in place.
- Creates a GMO registry, overseen by the county’s Department of Research and Development, with fees of $100. - Penalties: Fines of up to $1,000 per day per violation. No jail time possible.