By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The Hawaii County Council took its first bite out of legislation on genetically altered crops Friday, voting down an overall ban but deferring a more limited bill to another day during a lengthy and at times contentious discussion.
The actions, during a meeting of the Public Safety and Mass Transit Committee, took over four hours to reach, with council members stumbling frequently over matters of procedure and a series of back-and-forth discussions over how to proceed and what crops to restrict.
How to balance the needs of farmers of all types while addressing concerns over biotechnology proved to be a delicate process for council members, who largely appeared ready to take some action yet not entirely sure of where to draw the line.
The complicated and controversial issue seemed further tangled by the introduction of two bills — one to limit genetically modified organisms, and another to ban them outright — and a proposal to form an ad hoc committee, each providing the county with a different path to follow.
Numerous recesses and points of order were called throughout the discussion, with audience members seeing rare, gruff exchanges between council members.
Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter chaired the meeting, replacing South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford who introduced one of the two bills.
During one exchange, Poindexter, who appeared frustrated by the numerous fits and starts, scolded Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan for challenging a point of order called by Ford.
“You got to cut it out, seriously,” Poindexter told Ilagan after calling a recess and stepping out of her chair.
“I’ve been ever so respectful,” Ilagan responded in his defense before the meeting continued.
Showing little appetite for a ban on all genetically modified organisms, the council voted 1-7 on Bill 109. Ford, who introduced it, provided the only yes vote. Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi was present at the meeting but absent the moment the vote was taken.
The bill, though it has a negative recommendation, will still be sent to the council level for further consideration.
Ford after the meeting commented that the bill is dead. “I’ll be the only one voting for it,” she said.
That leaves Bill 113, the second anti-GMO bill introduced by Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille.
The bill allows for transgenic papaya, a sticking point in discussions over what to ban and what to allow, as well as any transgenic crops grown in an enclosed structure or already in use here.
Several council members noted the need to protect the crop and the 80-plus papaya farms on the isle, though industry representatives have said they don’t think an exemption would do them much good.
Eric Weinert, of Calavo Growers, told the council that the bill would still essentially label GMOs as bad or unwanted, which would cause harm to papaya farmers.
“It will taint our reputation,” said Weinert, adding that would eventually lead to the demise of the industry.
“We don’t want to be exempted here.”
Others noted that the transgenic papaya has statistically the same nutritional value as non-GMO varieties, and several council members said they are comfortable eating it.
No one spoke of eliminating the crop outright, and Ford, who introduced the full ban, offered an amendment to her bill providing papaya farmers an exemption.
“I’m not here to put people out of business,” said Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha. “That would be completely wrong of us to do.”
No action was taken on Ford’s amendment, with council members opting instead to focus on Bill 113.
Ilagan, whose district includes the bulk of papaya growers, went a step further in his support, saying the county should contribute funding for a transgenic papaya marketing campaign.
“I want the county to compensate for a marketing campaign where we as a county promote nutritional value of GM papaya,” he said. “That we want to get your name back on that stool where it was before.”
While the council largely appeared in favor of taking some action against GMOs, including keeping the main biotech companies off the isle, a full consensus had yet to be reached Friday on how to move forward, prompting the continuation of the meeting.
The meeting provided the most significant discussion the council has held on GMOs, since nearly four months after Wille’s first anti-GMO bill was introduced. She later withdrew that bill in favor of the new version.
Hundreds of isle residents have commented on the issue since May, leading to several marathon council sessions.
More testimony will also be allowed once the bills move to the council level.
Email Tom Callis at firstname.lastname@example.org.