HILO, Hawaii – A long day of testimony on two proposed laws prohibiting Genetically Modified Organisms on Hawaii Island was held on Wednesday. A crowd filled the chamber at the Hawaii County Council’s Public Safety & Mass Transit Committee meeting. Hours of passionate discussion stretched the hearing into the evening hours; some of the most interesting discussion happened outside, after the meeting was over.
The councilmembers did not vote on either Brend Ford’s Bill 109 or Margaret Wille’s Bill 113. Since both Ford and Wille are the chair and vice chair of the committee – and the chair is unable to speak on the bills until all other discussion has ended – Ford surrendered the chair. Hamakua councilwoman Valeria Poindexter was voted into the chair, and she decided to end the meeting immediately.
Discussion on the bills would have likely gone on for hours. We’ll have to wait until Friday to see how the councilmembers feel about the two bills.
Councilwoman Brend Ford’s Bill 109 is considered to be even more extreme than Wille’s Bill 113. Both measures will put an end to open air cultivation and development of GMOs on Hawaii Island. But while Wille’s bill would exempt the GMOs crops that already exist on the island – like transgenic papayas or corn used to feed dairy cows in Ookala – Ford’s bill would force those same industries to dispose of their GMO crops within 30
days months (corrected) of the bill’s passage.
Ford’s bill would, however, exempt GMOs in state or federal licensed medical or agricultural research institutions if they are contained in a high level biosafety facility.
The Department of Research and Development would administer Wille’s bill. The Department of Environmental Management would handle the duties under Ford’s bill. And as far as enforcement goes: both bills carry a $1000 fine, per day. Wille’s bill would make violators responsible for courts and legal costs, as well as damage to non-genetically engineered crops, neighboring properties and water sources. Ford’s bill would jail violators who fail to comply.
The first round of hearings on GMO prohibition in Hawaii County drew hundreds of testifiers over the course of multiple days. The community was deeply divided over the issue. When it came time for the council committee to vote, Wille withdrew the bill after it became apparent that she might find support if she retooled the bill. Wille’s withdrawal prompted Ford to declare that she was going to introduce a bill herself.
There were far fewer testifiers at Wednesday’s meeting compared to the previous meetings held over the summer. Fatigue may be setting on on both sides, as they have tirelessly campaigned for their point of view to be heard.
We spoke to Derek Brewer with GMO Free Hawaii Island – he’s been at all the big demonstrations and hearings – and he says he wishes the process could have been shortened and simplified. Brewer said that at this point, they have said all that needs to be said.
We also spoke to prominent Hamakua Springs Country Farmer Richard Ha about these latest proposals. Ha is not a papaya farmer. He sticks to bananas, tomatoes, and other crops on his Pepe’ekeo farm. His crops are not genetically modified, yet he defends the right of farmers to use available tools in agriculture.
Ha spoke with emotion about how he sees these measures effecting the future of farming in Hawaii.
Then our last interview of the day: Dr. Dennis Gonsalves, who was honored just a few months ago by Governor Neil Abercrombie for his work in developing the transgenic Rainbow papaya that was able to resist the devastating ringspot virus that had decimated the industry. Now, the retired Gonsalves finds himself inserted in a debate that grows more bitter by the week.
As the sun set on the parking lot where we talked, Gonsalves launched into a detailed account of how he developed the rainbow papaya, which could be declared illegal if Ford’s bill is voted through.
Gonsalves said the hardest thing is how the proposed laws have divided the community.
We were one of the last to leave the parking lot of the county building Wednesday night. The meeting had long since ended. But not before a back and forth between Gonsalves and Councilwoman Margaret Wille under the light of a streetlamp. Gonsalves admonished Wille for the bills she introduced, and said she never attempted to vet it through the farmers. But Wille said hardly any of those farmers accepted her open door invitation to speak. She also criticized Gonsalves for his continued defense of Hawaii’s ag industries that make use of GMO technology.