A Hawaii Senate panel approved Richard Ha’s nomination to the Board of Agriculture on Thursday despite resistance from opponents of genetically modified farming.

The farmer from the Big Island has already served on the state board for four years, but his re-appointment made headlines earlier this month when a freshman senator from the same island launched an online campaign urging people to call on other senators to oppose Ha.

The Hawaii-Tribune Herald reported Saturday that Sen. Russell Ruderman sent a mass email asking people to help block Ha’s nomination because of the farmer’s support for genetic engineering and geothermal energy, as well as Ha’s past public criticism of Ruderman.

“If any of you share my revulsion at Richard Ha being appointed to the State Ag Board, it’s not too late to do something,” Ruderman wrote.

The incident was the latest episode in a public tiff between the senator and the well-known farmer. It’s also another example of how the debate about genetic engineering in Hawaii has created and intensified divisions, even within relatively small communities on neighbor islands.

The Conflict

Ruderman and Ha have known each other for several years, but as acquaintances. So it isn’t entirely surprising that the quarrel between the two has largely taken place on blogs, social media and in the news media.

The senator owns three natural foods stores on the Big Island and buys produce from Ha, who grows tomatoes and bananas on a 600-acre farm called Hamakua Springs Country Farms. Although a supporter of biotechnology in farming, Ha doesn’t cultivate genetically engineered crops.

Before genetically modified farming became a hot topic on the island — Hawaii County voted to ban genetically engineered farming, with limited exceptions, last November — the two butted heads over geothermal energy.

Ha thinks Hawaii should take advantage of geothermal energy and that it could help alleviate the high cost of electricity on the Big Island. But Ruderman believes the energy source poses significant safety risks, and that solar energy is a better option.

While the two testified on opposite sides of that issue in political hearings, it wasn’t until the topic of genetic engineering blew up on the Big Island that things got personal.

The senator and the farmer hold opposing views on genetically modified farming. Ruderman believes that genetic engineering in food and farming is dangerous and should be regulated. But Ha contends it’s safe, and that farmers should be allowed to take advantage of it to bring down the cost of food.

Ruderman said despite their political disagreement, their relationship was cordial until Ha accused him of having a conflict of interest and spreading falsehoods about GMOs in the news media.

In a Civil Beat column, Ha criticized Ruderman for voting on GMO labeling bills when he has an interest in the issue, given that he owns a natural foods market.

Ruderman responded swiftly, arguing that labeling genetically modified foods would actually hurt his business rather than help it.

While Ruderman’s email opposing Ha’s nomination cited that exchange, the senator told Civil Beat that he does not hold a grudge and that his opposition to Ha is based on political beliefs.

The senator said the Department of Agriculture doesn’t need another supporter of genetic engineering. The department has consistently opposed legislation to require labeling of genetically modified products.

Ruderman also said the board would be better served by a member who values small farmers and organic farming than it would by someone who backs corporate farming operations. The senator was also concerned because at the time when Ruderman sent his email, Ha had not submitted any mandatory disclosure statements to the State Ethics Commission reflecting his financial interests during his time on the state board.

“I respect Richard Ha very much. He’s a good person with good intentions,” Ruderman told Civil Beat. “None of this conflict is on a personal level.”

The Hearing

Despite his intentions, Ruderman’s email backfired. The Senate Agriculture Committee received overwhelming testimony in support of Ha from individuals ranging from Big Island residents to representatives of biotech companies like Monsanto and Syngenta. The panel approved Ha’s nomination unanimously Thursday, and several committee members criticized Ruderman’s effort to derail Ha’s nomination.

“There’s no doubt that Richard Ha has been under unfair scrutiny,” said Agriculture Committee Chairman Clarence Nishihara.

Sen. Sam Slom, the only Republican in the Senate, called criticism of Ha “scurrilous” and Sen. Malama Solomon from the Big Island, said in a statement that Ha has been the subject of “unfortunate, unwarranted and unfair scrutiny.”

The critical testimony from anti-GMO activists about Ha also failed to sway Sen. Ronald Kouchi from Kauai.

“It is painful to see the integrity of an individual just being dragged through the mud like that when all he’s trying to do is feed the people of Hawaii,” Kouchi said.

Ruderman said he’s embarrassed about the email. He regrets his harsh words toward Ha and sent him a letter of apology earlier this week.

The two met before the confirmation hearing in Sen. Les Ihara’s office, where Ruderman apologized again.

Both said it was a good meeting and that they learned they have more in common than they had previously realized. Ruderman, for example, said he learned that Ha does support organic farming and Ha realized that Ruderman is on the same side on one aspect of the geothermal energy debate.

Ha also said he filed his missing financial disclosure reports this week, and emphasized that he does not receive any funding from biotech companies. State Ethics Commission Director Les Kondo confirmed receiving several reports from Ha but said state law does not allow them to be viewed by the public.

“The hatchet is kind of buried,” said Ruderman, who added that he hopes that he and Ha can work together in the future. “We both want the community to go in the same direction.”

As for Ha, the farmer said he hopes that the incident can underscore the need for community to find ways to overcome the divisiveness over biotechnology and farming.

“We really need to start doing what Sen. Ruderman and I did,” he said, referring to their constructive conversation on Thursday afternoon.

Ha noted that the future of farming in Hawaii is very uncertain. “As we move into that future, the most important thing that we need to keep with us is a spirit of aloha,” he said.

Contact Anita Hofschneider via email at anita@civilbeat.com or on Twitter at @ahofschneider

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