- Special Projects
Updated 2:53 p.m., 11/13/2014
Here’s a prediction.
Hundreds of people opposed to genetically modified organisms and the chemicals that big biotech businesses spray on experimental crops in Hawaii will head to downtown Honolulu next year to flood hearing rooms at the Capitol, wave protest signs and rave about the horrors of the multi-billion-dollar seed industry.
Ultimately their efforts will again fail to persuade state lawmakers to require labeling of GMO food, improve transparency of pesticide use or empower the counties that have preempted the state and made their own laws regulating companies like Monsanto, Syngenta and DowAgro.
Of course, it’s possible the House and Senate will agree to new restrictions and surprise the cynics who suspect the Legislature will balk when it comes to addressing the concerns of a growing number of residents worried about everything from health effects to consumer choice.
Regardless of how it plays out after the 2015 legislative session convenes Jan. 21, the focus for now is on Sen. Russell Ruderman and Rep. Clift Tsuji, newly chosen heads of the Senate and House agriculture committees.
The two lawmakers could not be much farther apart when it comes to the issue.
Ruderman is a Big Island businessman who owns a chain of organic food stores and has been outspoken in his opposition to GMOs. He replaces Sen. Clarence Nishihara, who routinely killed GMO bills without so much as a hearing.
Tsuji will take the reins from Jessica Wooley, who supports stronger GMO regulations but stepped down from her House seat last year to head the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He was named Biotechnology Industry Organization’s legislator of the year in 2010 for his support of the industry, which has given him thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.
“Both chairs on both sides both have certain biases,” House Speaker Joe Souki told reporters Wednesday after announcing the committee chair assignments.
Anti-GMO activists heralded the Senate’s decision last week to make Ruderman the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee but were dismayed by the Tsuji decision.
After hearing word that Tsuji was being considered for the post, Babes Against Biotech and other groups opposed to GMOs circulated an online petition that garnered over 4,000 signatures from people who did not want him to chair the committee.
Asked why Tsuji was chosen when so many people were unhappy with the choice, Souki said, “There’s also a lot of people happy about it.”
Souki also shot down the suggestion that Tsuji may have been chosen to balance out Ruderman.
“It wasn’t intentional,” Souki said, adding that House leaders were considering Tsuji for the job long before Ruderman was picked. “Tsuji was ag chairman in the past and he asked for it and we obliged.”
Despite all the attention given to the issue, further fueled last week by Maui County voters passing an initiative to place a moratorium on GMO farming, Souki said he hopes the Senate and House agriculture committees move beyond it.
“I’d like to think that our chair would look at it more broadly than GMOs and look at sustainability, having sufficient water, looking for more property that we can convert to agriculture,” Souki said. “There’s a lot more to do than just GMOs.”
In an interview last week, Ruderman said he hopes the GMO issue doesn’t interfere with work in other important areas. In particular, he wants to push legislation that helps Hawaii grow more of its own food and expands the market for value-added products.
Update Ruderman said he could see some progress being made on pesticide regulations and county home rule next session.
A federal court invalidated Kauai’s GMO law requiring more transparency from the seed industry and buffer zones around the fields they spray with pesticides because the judge said state law preempted the county ordinance. Ruderman said it’s important for the Legislature to find a way to empower the counties to make their own laws concerning this issue.
Ruderman clarified Thursday that he has no plans to introduce a GMO labeling bill or other bills relating to GMO restrictions in large part because there is “no hope that it’ll pass.” But he said he remains open to hearing those bills in his committee after reviewing the legislation and seeing if there’s any support from his colleagues.
He said he believes he can get certain bills passed in his committee, which he considers “balanced,” but isn’t overly optimistic that the legislation will make it much further.
“I don’t think it will be politically possible to make great strides,” he said.
Ruderman added that he’s thankful Senate President Donna Mercado Kim and other Senate leaders gave him the committee chairmanship, which will at least make him “harder to ignore.”