In a recent editorial, Mr. Richard Ha accused me of conflict of interest because I speak out about GMO issues, claiming I have no right to express my opinion or to vote on such issues because I am in the natural foods business. According to him, my comments about GMOs will unfairly benefit my business.

Mr. Ha is incorrect legally, ethically, and logically.

According to the authority on such matters, which includes the Senate President and the Senate attorney’s office, there is no such conflict of interest, legally. Only if I were to promote a position that benefited my company to the exclusion of others would there be a concern.

Actions that might benefit an entire industry are not conflicts of interest. Rules 81 and 85 of the Hawaii State Senate clarify this.

Ethically, there is no conflict in speaking out about issues of any sort, especially those in which I have expertise. Of course a legislator brings his/her background and expertise to the table. This is natural, fair, and it can be no other way.

After 35 years in the natural foods business, I feel qualified to speak on natural food, food marketing, and organic issues. I have studied the GMO issue seriously for over 10 years, delving deeply into the science and fictions on both sides of the issue. If anything, the obligation to speak out is greater for a legislator than for a private citizen.

Logically Mr. Ha has it exactly backwards, which I have explained to him several times. If my advocacy were to somehow be fully successful GMOs would be labeled, as is desired by 90 percent of the population. When that happens, every consumer will be able to choose safe non-GMO food in every supermarket, and have less need for a natural food store.

Today, the biggest driver of organic food’s growth is the desire to avoid GMOs. Labeling GMOs, the goal of my advocacy, will harm my business rather than help it.

Let’s consider the suggestion that one should not speak on the subjects about which he/she is most knowledgeable. According to this logic, a farmer should not speak about farming issues, which might benefit farmers. An educator should not advocate for education, as it might improve their school. An attorney should not pass laws relating to the legal field, as that might benefit lawyers. In fact, the expertise we bring to discussions and to the legislature is desirable and necessary.

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I am encouraged by his words; “Never be afraid to do what’s right, especially when the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”

No one gives up their right to speak when they get elected to public office, or to vote on issues of all sorts. There are responsibilities that come with the job, which I take seriously. Being silent is not one of them.

About the author: Russell Ruderman is the owner of Island Naturals Markets and State Senator from Puna and Ka’u.

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