By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The Hawaii County Council reserved a full day Tuesday to testimony on a bill to limit the use of genetically engineered crops.
But even that fell short of what they needed.
Hundreds of people from across the Big Island, a large majority against genetically modified organisms, packed council chambers in Kailua-Kona and Hilo as well as satellite offices in Waimea, Ka‘u and Pahoa, to have their say on the controversial issue.
As of 10 a.m., county staff had counted 260 testifiers signed up, many speaking to council members through video feeds, with more coming.
To handle the large turnout, South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford continued the meeting to today after nine hours of testimony. She chairs the Committee on Public Safety and Mass Transit, which is hearing the legislation.
Today’s meeting starts at 9 a.m. in Kailua-Kona. Testimony can still be made from the other locations.
Approximately 130 people spoke before the council Tuesday but there were many more to go.
Ford counted about 180 testifiers left in Kailua-Kona, where the council was meeting, at the end of the day. Pahoa also had another 80 who had signed up but had yet to speak.
In Hilo, the overflow crowd had thinned toward the end of the day, but a few testifiers stayed the entire time waiting for their turn.
Cathy True of Pepeekeo was next to speak in Hilo but didn’t get a chance before the meeting ended at 6 p.m.
True, who said she had been there since 9 a.m., planned to return today.
“I couldn’t forgive myself if I missed it,” she said, referring to the meeting.
Tuesday was the third time the committee has taken up the bill.
Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille, who introduced it, has proposed amendments but it remains in its original form.
The first meeting in May attracted over 100 speakers. That would be a significant turnout for any legislation, but was dwarfed by Tuesday’s showing.
Council members have also been flooded by emails from people for and against the bill.
Each received a printout of the written testimony about the size of a ream of paper, according to county staff.
Many GMO opponents wore green hats, shirts and ribbons to show their support for the bill.
They cited concerns over health and safety of modified food, noting studies on animals fed some types of transgenic food, as well as risks of cross-pollination of non-modified crops.
“How can we know (if GMOs are safe) if there haven’t been any long-term studies on humans?” asked Dave Sansone, who also said genetic engineering threatens biodiversity.
GMO opponents said that the island has an opportunity to set itself apart from the rest of the state, and join a growing non-GMO industry.
“We can be an example to the world to how we as human beings can still live,” Malae Miller of Hilo told the Tribune-Herald while waiting to speak to the council.
Over 60 countries have restrictions or bans on GMO food, according to the Non-GMO Project.
Several papaya growers, who use transgenic varieties that are resistant to the ringspot virus, testified against the bill.
Linda Bernardo recalled her farm being wiped out by the virus in the 1990s, and said transgenic papaya gave her family a second chance at farming.
“We had to start all over again,” she said, “and it was really hard to recover.
“GMO was introduced to us, and because of GMO, we were back in the papaya business again.”
Bernardo said the fruit is safe, and her children, who grew up eating it, remain healthy.
Dennis Gonsalves, who led the team of scientists that created the transgenic Rainbow and SunUp papaya, defended his work before the council.
“I’ve published my work and I stand by it no problem,” he said.
Gonsalves added he sees the bill as divisive and believes it labels transgenic papaya as “criminal.”
Papaya growers would still be allowed to produce modified food under the bill, but they would face additional regulations.
The bill, in its proposed amended form, would require GMO crops already grown here to be part of a registry and require signs noting the use of modified crops to be put in place.
The legislation, as Wille plans to amend it, also makes references to containment measures for GMO crops. She told the Tribune-Herald that what measures would be required still needs to be determined.
Mike Last said he is in favor of GMO food but believes it should be labeled on store shelves.
“Yes, there are possible hazards of GMO,” he said.
“But almost everything we manufacture could be found in the future to be detrimental.”
Representatives of biotech industries, which have seed farms on other islands in the state, said the bill is misguided.
Mark Phillipson, president of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, said engineered crops have been credited with helping to increase yields and allows plants, like papaya, to be resistant to disease.
“This bill moves us in exactly the opposite direction and would take a valuable tool that allows farmers to grow disease-resistant crops on less land and on less water,” he said.
A petition in favor of the bill has received 5,214 signatures, said Jason Blair, of GMO Free Hawaii Island.
Over 4,000 of the signatures have come from online, he said. Most of those are from isle residents, Blair said, adding that he has noticed a few from other countries.
“This is on the world stage,” he said.
The bill requires two votes outside of the committee process to be adopted, and several more meetings are expected.
Blake Watson, another member of GMO Free Hawaii Island, doesn’t see bill supporters getting burnt out, even if it does take a long process.
“The energy to get this done is really deep and strong,” he told the Tribune-Herald on Monday.
“… the longer it goes on the more people become aware of it, and they just keep coming in bigger numbers.”
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.