Despite opposition from most of Hawaii’s farming industry, the Hawaii County Council passed a bill Tuesday that prohibits biotech companies from operating on the Big Island and bans growing any new genetically altered crops.
“We are at a juncture — do we move forward in the direction of the agro-chemical monoculture model of agriculture, or do we move toward eco-friendly, diversified farming?” Councilwoman Margaret Wille, who introduced the bill, told Civil Beat after the vote.
For Wille, the 6-3 vote in favor of Bill 113, is a decisive victory for the latter.
“There is no sacred cow when it comes to how do we protect the future health of the island and the kids,” she said.
The bill now goes to Mayor Billy Kenoi for review. The mayor, who hasn’t taken a public stance on the bill, has 10 days to veto it.
The move marks another win for an increasingly vocal movement in Hawaii against genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
On Saturday, the Kauai County Council pushed through legislation requiring biotech companies to disclose details about their pesticide use and farmers to report to the county any genetically altered crops that they are growing.
The two measures differ in important ways. Kauai’s legislation is in response to long-standing concerns from west side residents that the chemicals being sprayed by the biotech companies — Syngenta, DuPont-Pioneer, Dow and BASF — are making people sick and harming the environment.
But no biotech companies operate on the Big Island and Bill 113 aims to keep it that way, in addition to banning any new GMO crops. The bill forbids any open-air testing or production of genetically modified crops. It also prohibits farmers from growing any new GMO crops but grandfathers in those that are already being grown, such as the Rainbow papaya.
The bill includes fines of $1,000 a day for anyone who violates the measure.
Still, both the Kauai and Big Island measures have drawn strong support from local residents as well as national groups who oppose GMOs and the companies that develop genetically engineered seeds.
“This is about the battle of good versus evil — and you know what I’m talking about in your heart of hearts,” said Big Island resident, Paul Korma, who testified on Tuesday in favor of the ban.
Many people who testified for the bill — and against GMOs — cited what they believe to be scientific evidence of public health threats or environmental dangers. But major regulatory agencies and academic organizations vouch for the safety of GMO crops.
Also attending the hearing were activists from Kauai who worked to successfully push through Bill 2491.
“You guys have a great opportunity to close the door on these global chemical companies,” said Dustin Barca, a member of Ohana Kauai and a well-known, professional surfer. “It’s time to put human health over corporate wealth.”
Passage of Bill 113 was met by a standing ovation from supporters who crowded the hearing room and carried signs that read “GMO Free Zone.”
But many in the farming industry say opponents are making pseudo-scientific attacks on tools that can help farmers increase yields, reduce pesticide use or even save crops from viruses and fungi.
“What bothers me is the anti-science position of so many people,” said Richard Ha, owner of Hamakua Springs Country Farms, who testified numerous times against the bill. “And I think there is a real lack of education and the combination of not trusting the government and not trusting corporations and not trusting scientists is not a good moment for us as human beings.”
Ha, as well as the majority of farmers on the Big Island, don’t grow GMO crops. But they worry that they won’t have access to future, cutting-edge technologies that could help in their operations.
The Big Island’s Rainbow papaya has been touted as a model of how biotech can save crops. The crops were essentially vaccinated against the ringspot virus in the 1990s, which was devastating Hawaii’s papaya industry.
GMO papaya farmers are exempted from the new measure because the crops are too pervasive to control, according to the bill. But papaya farmers, who under the bill will have have to pay the county $100 a year to register their fields, worry that it stigmatizes their crops and could lead to vandalism of their farms.
Dean Okimoto, president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, said that he’s concerned with the legality of the bill, but that his organization doesn’t have the funds to fight it. He said that while Bill 113 targets the multi-billion-dollar biotech industry, it ends up hurting the Big Island’s small farmers.
“How can you say you can only farm what you are farming now?” he said. “You may be putting guys out of business by restricting what they can and cannot use going forward. The cattle guys are depending on trying to develop a drought resistant grass.”
Wille dismissed those concerns as overblown. “I keep saying this is really modest,” she said. “All I did was say everyone halt where they are. This is status quo.”
You can read the bill below.