A bid to override county regulations on genetically modified crops failed to make it past a crucial Senate committee Tuesday.

Hawaii Sen. Clarence Nishihara, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, originally introduced the bill amending the state’s Right to Farm Act through Senate Bill 3058 last month.

That bill would bar counties from enacting laws that limit farmers’ use of certain biotechnology. Both the Big Island and Kauai approved laws last year that, among other things, imposed regulations on genetically modified crops.

When it became clear that the measure might not move forward before a procedural deadline, a plan was devised to insert the bill’s language into another piece of legislation, Senate Bill 110.

But the effort stalled on Tuesday afternoon when Nishihara couldn’t gain majority support in the Senate Agriculture Committee to replace the text in SB 110. The vote was split 3-3. Sen. Glenn Wakai was absent.

Even though the hearing was a procedural matter and lawmakers did not listen to any testimony, advocates on both sides of the issue filled the room, sitting on the floor and standing by the walls.

Opponents of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) burst into applause when the bill died, hugging each other in relief.

Nishihara told reporters after the hearing that his effort to amend the Right to Farm Act is dead for this session, even though SB 3058 is technically still alive, having been referred to the committees on agriculture, health and public safety. Lawmakers can and often do resurrect issues by replacing text in other bills, but Nishihara said that he’s not going to try to get his proposed amendment considered again.

“To me, this is it,” he said. “You play ball, then you lose it. You don’t call back and call the referee.”

Nishihara said he thought the bill might have passed if Wakai had been present, but that the effort’s eventual death was inevitable.

Hawaii State Sen. Clarence K. Nishihara, chairman of the Committee on Agriculture during hearing for the discussion and vote on an amendment to Hawaii’s Right to Farm Act on Feb. 4, 2014. The bill had a 3-3 vote and thus died. (PF Bentley/Civil Beat)

He added that he’s frustrated by the emotion-driven debate around genetically modified food.

Many opponents of genetic engineering reject conclusions of the World Health Organization and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that such food doesn’t have any known harmful effects.

Nomi Carmona from the group Babes Against Biotech says that many independent studies show the opposite to be true.

In addition to Nishihara, Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz voted yes on Tuesday’s proposal. Senate Minority Leader Sam Slom also voted in favor, explaining that approving the text would pave the way for a public hearing on the issue.

But Sen. Laura Thielen, Sen. Ronald Kouchi from Kauai — where the debate over GMOs has been particularly intense — and Sen. Kalani English from Maui opposed the bill.

English explained that he objected to the way the bill would affect counties’ right to govern themselves.

“I think this is a dangerous slippery slope,” he said.

Thielen disagreed with the idea of adding language to SB 110 given that SB 3058 is still in play. “To go this route just raises a lot of questions in people’s minds that it’s not fair,” she said.

At the end of the hearing, Nishihara gave an impassioned speech to the packed room indicating that he considers activists who rally against genetically modified crops to be ill-informed about the science behind them.

It is ironic, he said, that such activists accept flu vaccines and other forms of technology but not genetically engineered crops. He compared the activists with religious zealots in the Middle Ages who rejected core aspects of scientific knowledge.

“There will always be people who believe that technology is dangerous,” he said. “To have a real rational discussion is what I’m hoping we can do.”

Contact Anita Hofschneider on Twitter at @ahofschneider.

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