Environmental activist Jessica Mitchell is upset with state Sen. Clarence Nishihara for not hearing House Bill 174, which would impose labels on imported genetically engineered food.

If the food is not labeled, Hawaii would not permit its sale or distribution here.

HB 174 passed the House, but Nishihara, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, won’t hold a hearing on his side of the Capitol.

Exasperated, on March 12 Mitchell vented her frustration in a voicemail on Nishihara’s office answering machine. She called the senator a “pro-biotech lover” for not hearing HB 174, adding that “the people want this bill to be heard.”

Her anger growing, Mitchell also said in the message (you can listen to it in its entirety below) that she will make it her “personal mission” to stop Nishihara’s re-election.

Mitchell’s message concludes: “It’s ridiculous. We have to fight you to protect our aina, Mr. Nishihara. Go back to Japan and mess up their aina.”

Reached by phone Monday, Mitchell said that the Japan comment, which Nishihara shared with Civil Beat, “was not appropriate.” She soon emailed an apology to the senator.

But Mitchell did not back down from her passionate view that genetically modified organisms — GMOs — are a threat to her family and all of Hawaii.

“If I got his attention, that’s good,” she said.

For his part, Nishihara said he had not heard a direct attack on Japanese ancestry for “well over 40 years. … Back then, when some people would get pissed off, they’d say, ‘Go back to Japan.'”

Nishihara later joked with his colleagues about the Japan remark — “I told them I should have said, ‘Buy me a first-class ticket!” — but it also illustrates one of the most divisive issues at the Legislature this year. It’s a battle fueled by organized groups on both sides and accelerated through social media, especially by a group calling itself Babes Against Biotech.

Nishihara said many of his colleagues found Mitchell’s comments offensive.

But Mitchell said she is offended that he won’t hear a bill that will help her understand what’s in the food she’s buying at the grocery store.

“I am not Hawaiian, but my husband and two children are, and I am just as protective as a mama bear,” she said. “These are issues that really touch me on a personal level.”

Babes Against Biotech

The GMO issue has touched a lot of people this session.

Mitchell is on the side of those who believe GMOs are a health and environmental threat, and that big agricultural companies like Monsanto suppress scientific research that proves it. They say the trend in many places, particularly Europe, is to ban GMOs.

Nishihara is on the other side, the one that accepts scientific research that finds no real harm from GMOs. They point out that genetically engineered crops have been around for thousands of years. Besides, the state doesn’t have the authority to restrict imports of GMO food into the state, and if it did, businesses would suffer.

(On that last point, a group of University of Hawaii law students have challenged the Attorney General’s opinion regarding HB 174’s apparent violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause.)

Then there is the matter of money.

Critics accuse Nishihara and Sen. Roz Baker, chairwoman of Commerce and Consumer Protection, of being under the sway of financial contributions from Monsanto. In fact, Monsanto did give money to both senators — $2,500 to Baker in 2012 and $1,500 to Nishihara. Another agribusiness, Syngenta Crop Protection, gave Nishihara $500 late last year.

Civil Beat

Sen. Clarence Nishihara.

But then, Monsanto throws a lot of money at a lot of candidates, and Nishihara dismisses any notion that the contributions buy his vote.

What persuades him to not give HB 174 a hearing, he says, is the science. He finds the data provided from Monsanto “reasonable” and possessing a “veracity” missing in testimony from groups like Babes Against Biotech.

That infuriates Nomi Carmona, the nonprofit group’s president. She blames the biotech industry, of which Monsanto and Syngenta are among the leaders, for refusing to acknowledge any study “that they did not fund itself.”

“This is a serious health and environmental threat,” she said, directing Civil Beat to her dozens of pages of testimony on HB 174. (You can view her most recent testimony, which Carmona said cites “independently funded, peer-reviewed scientific evidence.”)

Like Mitchell (who is not a member of Babes Against Biotech), Carmona vows to work against Nishihara’s re-election — something she said in her own voicemail message to Nishihara’s office last week.

“You need to let him know that we are going to start canvassing his district tomorrow and we are looking forward to him hearing HB 174,” Carmona said in the message (which is also posted below). “He does not want to get dragged in to this GMO thing, or does he? Is this worth his career? This issue is getting larger and larger, and we will definitely work against his re-election if he does not hear 174 and pass it and support it and join the fight of the people and not the corporations. And we know his campaign funds and we are going to go ahead and publish it today.”

Nishihara, who says he’s been receiving up to 40 emails and phone calls a day on HB 174, shrugs off any electoral challenge. He also doesn’t accept the science presented by Carmona and others, relying instead on the advice of experts like Dr. Maria Gallo, dean of the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

“Studies have not shown any ill effects,” he said. “Even the American Medical Association found no problem, no harmful effect. But the anti-GMO groups, they say there is a study here or there, that rats are getting tumors or something in testing, that there is a European Union ban, that Monsanto is a big evil. … Well, you can always find people who are more likely to believe it’s bad. They are into organic and that kind of thing, and food is always a sensitive issue.”

An Endrun For HB 174?

Nishihara said neither he nor Baker want to hear HB 174. Because the measure has a triple joint committee referral, it faces a critical deadline this week at the Legislature.

But Sen. Josh Green, chairman of Senate Health — the third committee HB 174 must be heard in — is anxious to hear the GMO labeling bill. There were indications late Monday that the bill might be heard after all.

“As health chair, I would hear this bill day or night,” he said. “I believe in it. From a health perspective, I am convinced that openness and transparency on GMOs is essential.”

Green, a medical doctor, added, “I just think this is the right time. People across the state of Hawaii are clamoring for it. … I would like to see this become law because I believe Hawaii should lead on the GMO issue.”

Another Big Island senator, Russel Ruderman, agrees. As the owner of three health food stores, he said he has studied the issue of genetically engineered foods for years and is convinced they are not safe.

“There are tests that show changes to reproductive organs,” he said. “There have been multiple food allergies and an increase in autism since they were introduced into the food supply. I think very seriously that we are guinea pigs in something we did not sign up for.”

Civil Beat

Sens. David Ige, Josh Green, Roz Baker.

Ruderman said his colleagues are beginning to “feel the heat,” pressured by events like an anti-GMO rally that drew hundreds in Hilo over the weekend.

Another protest greeted lawmakers as they boarded a bus to take them to a Taste Of Ag event on Saturday at Kunia Farms. The annual invite was sponsored by the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation and Hawaii Crop Improvement Association “in a celebration of Hawaii’s agricultural industry featuring our local farmers and growers.”

The crop association is a top lobbyist for the seed crop trade association.

This week, Babes Against Biotech and other anti-biotech groups are collecting the signatures of state senators to force Nishihara’s and Baker’s committees to hear HB 174. Another option — a rarely employed legislative technique — would be to pull the bill out of committee and put it to a floor vote.

Nishihara thought both options unlikely. But HB 174 supporters were heartened Monday when Clayton Hee, chairman of Senate Judiciary and Labor, waived hearing the bill in his committee — a fourth hurdle beyond the triple referral.

Still, Ruderman wasn’t sure if HB 174 would pass even if it is heard.

“The problem is that Monsanto has a really strong influence on many legislators,” he said.

Four other GMO-related measures, all sponsored by Green and Ruderman, are dead this session, including the Senate version of GMO labeling, a state ban on GMO food and a ban on the sale of Roundup, a Monsanto pesticide.

Making It Personal

HB 174 received only one “no” in its final House vote, from Republican Bob McDermott. But 19 representatives voted “aye” with reservations, suggesting some are uncomfortable with the measure.

Rep. Jessica Wooley, chairwoman of House Agriculture — Nishihara’s counterpart — said HB 174 was “not a perfect bill.” For one thing, she would like to see restoration of language in the original draft that called for labeling local produce, although that could be rectified should the bill make it to conference committee.

“Our Legislature needs to hear and pass into law HB 174, allowing Hawaii citizens the opportunity to make informed decisions about the foods they eat,” said Wooley. “We have the opportunity to be first in the nation to take a bold step on this issue. It will make our communities better and will be appreciated by the vast majority of our constituency.”

Are GMO’s safe?

“I think it probably depends on who you are and what concerns you have, but it is a choice, and that is how the free market works,” she said. “We are not going to ban GMO, but labeling is coming.”

Meanwhile, the lobbying and public relations continue, and others have been targets besides Nishihara. They include Alicia Maluafiti, executive director of Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, who has been singled out for criticism on Babes Against Biotech’s social media accounts.

“They’ve targeted me in such a manner that they have personalized it,” she said. “They attack the nonprofit work I do. They’ve made fun of my appearance. I mean, that reduces their credibility. I don’t care what side of an issue you are on, in my 20-plus years of doing my communications and advocacy work, I have never seen such disresepctful and rude actions by a group of people.”

Maluafiti continued: “It’s just not pono. Even the other GMO groups did not do this. I think they have usurped groups like Hawaii Seed, GMO Free Kauai, GMO Free Maui. Babes Against Biotech has basically threatened people. ”

Maluafiti added that she is not intimidated by the group and stands up to them. She also concedes that supporters of GMO like herself have learned a lesson from Babes Against Biotech, which has a colorful website that features members in bikinis.

For her part, Nomi Carmona — who is Miss September on the 2012 Babes Against Biotech calendar — said it is the responsibility of Babes Against Biotech to educate the public on the fact that Maluafiti “works for a biotech lobbying group. She is a paid lobbyist.”

As for rude comments about Maluafiti on social media sites, Carmona said, “If our members and subscribers draw conclusions about her health and appearance as identification as a GMO lobbyist, we are not going to censor comments. But we do our best to draw a line at personal attacks. … We just want the public to know who she is and what she is doing at the Legislature and how it affects their daily lives.”

Maluafiti jokes that she is thinking about forming her on advocacy group, Titas For Technology.

“Our mantra would be, ‘Everything about us is organic,'” she said, laughing. “No implants, no liposuction, no collagen, no Botox.”

Follow Civil Beat on Facebook and Twitter. You can also sign up for Civil Beat’s free daily newsletter.

About the Author