HILO — The debate over genetically modified crops and food is a serious one.

But it can be easy to lose sight of that, especially amid the feisty — some might say volatile — Hawaii County Council Public Safety and Mass Transit committee’s debate Wednesday about a pair of bills to ban GMOs on the island. It lasted nearly six hours with plenty of public testimony, and went late into the evening.

Extreme critics of GMOs insisted that such crops and foods might cause cancer, birth deformities, tumors, sterility and could lead to the widespread devastation of farming and health.

One woman suggested that GMOs could be as bad as a nuclear disaster for the planet.

Another resident warned that if he ever accidentally eats genetically modified food and dies from it, he will somehow hold the county council liable.

On the sidelines of a parade of two-minute talks by members of the public, there was even an argument between a widely respected retired scientist and the founder of an organization involved in dolphin-assisted human births.

A hearing room full of farmers, scientists, environmental advocates, GMO industry supporters, hippies and regular Big Island residents took part in the next chapter in the island’s divisive debate.

Last month, Hawaii County Councilwoman Margaret Wille withdrew her bill to ban biotech companies and new GMO crops so that she could make alterations to it. On Wednesday, she introduced a new version with clearer wording and sharper focus. (More on that below.)

It was considered alongside a similar but competing proposal — that might be characterized as Wille’s proposal on steroids — introduced by Councilwoman Brenda Ford.

Both bills prohibit biotech companies from operating on the Big Island and ban all new GMO crops. The biggest difference between the proposals is that Wille’s bill provides an exemption for the island’s genetically engineered papayas, as well as other GMO crops that are currently being grown. She wants to hold the line on GMOs on the Big Island.

Ford’s bill bans pre-existing crops after two and a half years. This means that farmers and landowners caught still growing GMO papaya and other modified crops could face 30 days in jail and fines of up to $1,000 per day, under the measure.

As testimony dragged on, a row of papaya farmers sitting outside the hearing room looked increasingly concerned.

The debate was wide-ranging, pitting science against fears about the ostensible dangers of manipulating nature. A number of federal agencies, including the American Medical Association and the Food and Drug Administration, have said that there is no scientific evidence showing that approved GMOs harm human health. Last year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, released a statement saying that there is no intrinsic difference between consuming genetically altered crops and crops tweaked by conventional crop improvement methods.

Many Americans regularly eat GMO foods. After all, 90 percent of corn and 95 percent of soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. In other words, GMO foods are already present on grocery shelves and in many processed foods.

Barefooted Opposition

That offers little or no comfort to some opponents of GMOs who noted that the crops are banned in many countries, can contaminate non-GMO and organic fields, and could spur countless unintended consequences.

Keaau resident Helene Love may have gone the furthest in defining the threat that she sees from GMOs. “Forcing genes of one species into another and changing the DNA of plants is not natural and could turn out to be a huge danger, similar to nuclear disasters of our planet that we can’t put out,” she testified.

Perhaps the most improbable testimony came when Richard Schott showed up without shoes or even slippers. He explained that he has been barefoot for the past seven years and that this provides him with a greater sensitivity to nature and the land. Therefore, he has witnessed pigs’ aversion to GMO papayas, he explained, and that was proof enough that there is something wrong with the fruit given that the pigs wreak havoc on all crops except for the GMO papaya.

There were few voices representing large biotech companies like Syngenta, Monsanto, Pioneer, Dow and BASF, despite their growing presence in the Hawaiian islands over the past decade. On Oahu, Kauai and Molokai, the companies have been experimenting with GMO cops and growing genetically altered seed for export elsewhere. But the multinational biotech companies don’t operate on the Big Island. The proposed bills aim to keep it that way.

Studying the Problem

Judi Steinman, a local scientist and small farmer, who advises Syngenta on communications, testified that the bills are “patronizing and ignore the science on GMOs.” She and others are advocating for the county council to form an ad hoc committee to study relevant health and economic issues before moving forward on any legislation.

Wille supports the creation of such a committee — but only after a bill passes that ties biotech’s hands. “If we pause without a bill in place, the door is still wide open (for GMOs),” she told Civil Beat.

Amid the debate, and the communications war around GMOs in the islands, local farmers are expressing fears that the bills will deprive them of tools that they may one day need in order to limit crop diseases and increase plant yields. Big Island tomatoes, for example, have been hurt by a fungus in recent years and trials are underway on Oahu to genetically alter fruit to withstand the disease.

But the two bills are of particular concern to the more than 200 papaya farmers on the Big Island. The DNA of the papaya was modified in the 1990s to withstand the devastating ringspot virus by a team of scientists led by local resident Dennis Gonsalves.

The normally serene retired Cornell scientist was at the hearing too, but he was less cheerful than usual. At one point he got in a tussle outside of the hearing room with Michael Hyson, a biologist, who testified at the hearing that GMOs are linked to tumors and sterility, among other serious health risks. (Hyson is founder of the Big Island’s Sirius Institute, which has made news recently for specializing in dolphin-assisted births of humans in the ocean. The institute is committed to the “dolphinization of the planet,” according to its website.)

Gonsalves came to defend the papaya he helped to create and urge council members to kill both measures. “The bills simply limit the capacity of the scientists to work to help farmers,” he said.

Specifically, Wille’s Bill 113 bans all open air testing and cultivation of GMO crops. The measure exempts current and future genetically altered papayas, as well as the few other GMO crops already under cultivation. The bill require farmers to register with the county if they are growing GMO crops and to pay an annual $100 fee. Registering the crops is aimed at facilitating the county’s efforts to assess whether GMOs cause any harm. Violators of the law would be fined $1,000 a day and they would be liable for court and legal costs associated with any damage to non-GMO crops, neighboring properties or water sources.

Ford’s measure Bill 109 bans all genetically modified plants, as well as altered animals and feed. And it would punish violators with jail time.

There was little consensus among those testifying against GMO crops as to which measure they preferred. Many said they just wanted something to pass.

While many showed up to testify in support of the anti-GMO bills, a number of people opposed them.

Lorie Farrell testified that the bills were dividing the local community, hurting small farmers and that in the end they were not going to affect the large biotech companies because they don’t even operate on the island.

“Our papayas are not contaminated,” she said. “The only contamination here is this supposed cure looking for a disease.”

Either bill still has to pass the Public Safety and Mass Transit Committee — and it is unclear when it will be voted on there — before advancing to the full county council vote. If it passes, it would move on to the mayor for approval.

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