The debate about genetically altered seeds and biotech has moved from picket lines at the state Capitol to heated public hearings on the Big Island and Kauai.

Both county councils are debating bills that could have far-reaching impacts on Hawaii’s agribusiness and farming industries after state legislation requiring labels on imported GMO foods failed to pass this session.

None of the large agribusiness companies operate on the Big Island and Hawaii County council member Margaret Wille hopes to keep it that way.

Wille has proposed a bill that would prevent agribusiness companies from taking root on the Big Island and ban new GMO crops.

“My overall view is hold the line where it is now,” she said.

Meanwhile on Kauai, Kauai County council member Gary Hooser has proposed a bill that freezes biotech growth until the county does a thorough assessment of the industry’s potential environmental impacts. Bill 2491 would also require the county to regulate pesticide use and require farmers to disclose whether they are growing GMO crops.

Four of the world’s major biotech companies operate on Kauai, including Sygnenta, Pioneer, Dow and BASF.1

The bills have galvanized anti-GMO advocates as well as local farmers who feel they’re getting caught in the cross-hairs of a national and international debate.

“It’s becoming kind of a proxy battle with very large concerns,” said Jerry Ornellas, president of the Kauai County Farm Bureau. “There’s already talk about making Kauai ground zero for this whole national debate that makes us uncomfortable.”

GMO opponents worry that genetically altered seeds are contaminating organic or conventional farming operations and that pesticides and chemicals are hurting the land and even human health.

But agribusiness companies and local farmers say that advanced technology allows them to grow better crops that are resistant to disease at greater yields using less land.

Tractors and Tears

Hundreds of Big Island residents turned out at a public hearing last week to testify on Bill 79. The hearing lasted two days because of the outpouring and included impassioned testimony from supporters and opponents.

Comedian, actress and Hamakua nut farmer Roseanne Barr even made an appearance, registering her support for the legislation.

“For the people who make their living growing GMOs, you know everybody here is very giving and they probably would bend over backwards to help you burn those papayas and grow something decent,” she said before choking up with tears.

Big Island papayas were stricken with a devastating ringspot virus that almost wiped them out in the mid-1990s. University of Hawaii scientists helped save the papaya by breeding a seed that was resistant to the virus.

Wille’s bill would allow GMO papaya growers an exemption from the ban. But papaya farmers feel that the bill would taint their product.

“The papaya guys are really worried that just the idea, making it look like something is wrong with their papayas, could affect them adversely,” said Big Island farmer Richard Ha.

Other than papayas there are few crops on the Big Island that are grown with genetically modified seeds, say farmers, but they worry that the bill could hurt local farming in the long run.

“What if (the agribusiness companies) had a super good tasting tomato,” said Ha. “And the only place you can not grow it would be Hawaii County. That would put our farmers in a really tough place.”

Dean Okimoto, president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau said he’s so worried about the GMO legislation that he canceled a business trip to Washington, D.C. this week. He said the bill could hamper Hawaii’s goal of becoming more food self-sufficient by banning GMO corn that could bolster the dairy industry and genetically modified guinea grass that has been bred to be drought tolerant.

“If the farmers are there saying this is wrong, then I don’t get why nobody is listening,” said Okimoto. “Because we are the ones doing the ag.”

In the midst of the two days of hearings on the Big Island, some 50 cattle, papaya and delivery trucks circled the county council building in a show of protest against the bill.

Wille said she feels there needs to be further compromise on the bill for it to pass. A final vote is expected at the end of the month.

Kauai Ground Zero For GMO Fight?

On Kauai, a similar scene is playing out.

Hooser’s bill is more far-reaching. It would impose a moratorium on new or expanded GMO operations until the county conducts a thorough environmental assessment on the industry and its pesticide practices, including tests on soil, water, air and residents. It bans open-air testing of experimental pesticides and GMO crops and requires large commercial farmers to disclose pesticide and GMO use. The bill also requires a 500-foot buffer zone between large pesticide users and schools and waterways.

Syngenta spokesman Mark Phillipson said that the bill would devastate the agribusiness industry on Kauai which employs about 1,000 full and part time workers and brings in tens of millions of dollars to the local economy.

He said that the buffer zones would reduce Sygenta’s current acreage by more than 90 percent.

“We are taking this extremely seriously,” said Phillipson. “This is a threat to our business and the livelihood of our employees.”

Hooser said the bill doesn’t aim to kill the GMO industry and that Syngenta’s concerns are overblown.

“My intent and the purpose of the bill is to protect people and sensitive habitat,” he said.

Hooser said the bill doesn’t affect small farmers.

But Ornellas said that the bill took a “shotgun approach” when there was no evidence that GMO farming was harming the environment or human health. He said that he doubted the county has the resources to handle increased oversight.

DISCUSSION:: Do you think the GMO bills are warranted? What about the affect on Hawaii’s farmers?

1.: A previous story erroneously listed Monsanto as operating on Kauai. Monsanto closed its operations on that island in 2009.

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