By ERIN MILLER
Some Hawaii Island residents have told Margaret Wille she doesn’t need to be in a rush to prohibit genetically modified crops here.
But the Kohala councilwoman said she’s seeing both proposed GMO projects on Hawaii Island that concern her and ways banning GMO here could provide the county with an economic boost.
“We have a choice of what direction we go on this island,” Wille said during a meeting of the Kona Chapter of the Hawaii Farmers Union United at the West Hawaii Civic Center on Monday afternoon. “We don’t have much time. We should have meaningful say-so on this island on the food we eat.”
The councilwoman introduced Bill 79, which would prohibit genetically modified crop growth, with a few exceptions, such as one for the island’s established papaya industry.
Wille said she’s heard rumors of Monsanto, one of the largest producers of genetically modified seeds, asking a Hawaii Island ranch for a 1,400-acre GMO corn test. But she’s also had Japanese investors talk with her about their desire to buy “noncontaminated beef.”
There are “people coming in willing to put in a $40 million slaughterhouse if we can guarantee a supply of noncontaminated beef,” she said, adding that could be a major economic boost.
In the papaya industry, which has been dealing with the issue of genetic modification for years, farmers are able to charge a premium, particularly to European buyers, for non-GMO fruit, Wille said.
Contamination — particularly the cross-pollination of non-GMO plants with modified ones — is a big concern, Wille and several West Hawaii farmers said. One farmer noted that European scientists, when they first began studying GMO plants, called for doing all the experiments within an enclosed area after six months of study. The problem, the farmer said, was that scientists quickly realized that bees and wind would spread the modified plants’ pollen.
Other farmers noted health issues in Third World countries associated with consuming large quantities of GMO grains and other plants, as well as increasing costs of production because of reliance on GMO seeds.
Wille said she started looking into the issue as one of several items she was curious about.
“I got deeper and deeper into this and realized how important this question is,” she said. “When I started, I had no idea how established the industry is in the other counties. This is the only one left not taken over in an overarching policy of industrial agriculture versus local farming.”
The state Legislature nearly passed a bill this session that would have stripped the counties of much of their home rule authority, Wille said. And if the council approves the GMO prohibition, she said she anticipates the Legislature next session approving a bill that would supersede the county’s authority to enact such a ban.
Farmers union member Sandra Scarr said she had mixed feelings about GMO.
“I’m profoundly disappointed with what’s happened with GMO,” Scarr said. “(GMO founding scientist Norman Borlaug’s) dream was to improve the quantity of food and quality of food. He wanted no one to go hungry. That was a promise of GMO. It’s been hijacked by some pretty bad corporate people.”
Instead, GMO has become a way to sell more Roundup and control the seed supply, she said.
Former councilman Kelly Greenwell said he attended the meeting to hear more information from people who oppose GMO, because he wanted to know what the alternative is to genetically modifying seeds.
“We as farmers have a huge responsibility going into the future and I do not think we can continue with more heinous pesticides, as that seems to be the alternative route,” Greenwell said.
Hawaii Farmers Union United President Vincent Mina said the organization is careful to take a stand that supports all its farmers — but he also noted in a later conversation concerns about GMO products. Even animals, given a choice, will opt for non-GMO plants over modified ones, he said.
The Hawaii County Council will next hear Bill 79 July 2 at the West Hawaii Civic Center.
Email Erin Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.