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Battle over GMO heads back to council


Tribune-Herald staff writer

Hawaii County Councilwoman Margaret Wille is preparing new amendments for her bill to limit the use of genetically modified crops.

One of those changes will include the elimination of a proposed buffer zone.

Wille told the Tribune-Herald on Monday that she believes other proposed regulations in Bill 79 would be sufficient and that a 750-foot buffer area between modified crops and neighboring properties will not be necessary.

While speaking specifically of the Rainbow papaya, the Big Island’s main transgenic crop, the councilwoman said the “number of feet really doesn’t make any difference” if the plants grown are self-pollinating.

She said she is trying to balance the needs of farmers who have already invested in the virus-resistant papaya, while limiting the additional use of transgenic plants, also known as genetically modified organisms, on the island.

“It’s a work in progress,” Wille said.

Farmers who grow Rainbow papaya and SunUp, a lesser-used transgenic variety, have opposed the buffer idea, believing it will put a significant financial strain on their operations.

Michael Madamba, who farms the transgenic papaya on about 50 acres in Pohoiki, told the Tribune-Herald the buffer zone could have required farmers to cut down hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of their own trees.

“It would make it very difficult,” he said, to stay in business.

Wille’s initial proposal would have required U.S. Department of Agriculture Level 3 biosafety measures for existing transgenic crops. That will also be removed, she has said.

The Kohala councilwoman brought copies of the proposed amendments, to be submitted as a substitute version at the July 2 council meeting, with her to a meeting of GMO Free Hawaii Island on Monday night at the University of Hawaii at Hilo campus.

About 75 people attended, and those who spoke appeared to be receptive of the changes.

Many applauded Wille for taking on the issue.

Organizers of the meeting said a petition in support of the bill has received 1,200 signatures.

Still, the councilwoman acknowledged that some would like to see the bill be more stringent in how it would regulate the controversial biotech industry.

“The bill is not perfect,” she said while speaking at the meeting.

“We’re trying to take one step,” Wille added. “Let’s draw the line where it is.”

Wille introduced the bill to do exactly that.

Under the proposal, the propagation of additional transgenic crops would be prohibited on the island, and existing transgenic farms, like those growing modified papaya, would be grandfathered but face additional regulations.

Use of such crops has been mainly limited to the Rainbow and SunUp papaya, introduced in the late 1990s after the largely Puna-based industry was devastated by the ringspot virus.

The Big Island Dairy also has been criticized for growing transgenic corn on the Hamakua Coast that it uses for cattle feed. It also would be exempt.

Cattle feed, “physically-contained medical or agricultural (research) facilities” and the horticulture industry, which hopes to one day use disease-resistant transgenic flowers, also would be exempt, under changes Wille has already proposed.

But they would be subject to regulations, such as a requirement that signs be posted on the property notifying the use of transgenic crops and be part of a countywide registry.

The registry would include information such as measures to prevent cross-pollination of non-transgenic crops, location of farms, and a list of pesticides and herbicides used, among other requirements.

All transgenic crops not listed with an exemption, or part of a “contained” research facility, would be prohibited from the isle. The county already has a ban on transgenic coffee and taro from 2008.

New or expanded farms for exempted crops will still be allowed as long as the regulatory requirements are met, Wille said.

The councilwoman said the bill is needed to limit or prevent cross-pollination of non-transgenic crops and because there remains significant concerns over the safety of such plants, some of which are created to be resistant to herbicides like Roundup or kill pests.

Critics of the bill say it could handicap agriculture on the island by further limiting the adoption of modified crops.

Wille argues that labeling the island as a largely-GMO free zone could have economic benefits.

Hawaii has also become home to several of the big biotech companies, which operate non-transgenic and transgenic seed farms on other islands, and Wille said she is concerned they could come here without further regulation.

Those operations have been heavily criticized by transgenic opponents who are concerned they use too many chemicals and could lead to cross-pollination.

The state does have oversight for transgenic crops to prevent cross-pollination and other issues, but regulations typically apply to field trials and not plants approved for commercialization, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

On Kauai, home to several seed farms, County Councilman Gary Hooser last week introduced a bill that would create a moratorium on transgenic crops, prohibit open-air testing of new transgenic varieties, and create a 500-foot pesticide-free zone around public areas and bodies of water, The Garden Island reported.

Hooser couldn’t be immediately reached for comment, but he told the Kauai newspaper that he has Agriculture Department documentation showing that five biotech companies on the island are applying 22 restricted-use pesticides.

Such pesticides, which make up a quarter of those in use, may only be applied by trained applicators or under their supervision, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Hector Valenzuela, a vegetable crops extension specialist with UH-Manoa, criticized the seed industry at the anti-GMO meeting for its use of pesticides, saying they present similar environmental problems as the sugar plantations did decades ago.

Valenzuela, a proponent of organic farming who said he wasn’t representing the university, also noted health concerns from some transgenic crops, particularly those made to be herbicide- or pest-resistant.

He said studies, such as those that have pointed to health problems of livestock fed some of the plants, continue to raise “red flags.”

Valenzuela said governments should follow the “precautionary principle” and require further studies before more modified plants are approved for planting. That includes Hawaii.

“In essence, I think we are talking about the future of agriculture in the state,” he said.

Numerous Kauai residents also filed a lawsuit against Pioneer Hi-Bred International and other defendants in 2011 alleging that their operations present dangers to health and the environment.

Their attorney, Gerard Jervis, has not returned repeated calls requesting comment.

Even without the buffer requirement, Madamba said he is still opposed to Wille’s bill, believing it will make transgenic papaya less desirable to consumers.

“Any form of this bill being passed … it just sends a bad message no matter what the amendments are,” he said.

“It may not hurt (farming operations),” Madamba added, “but on the market side it will devastate us.”

Rainbow and SunUp papaya carry a gene from the ringspot virus, which allows it to reject the pathogen.

Madamba said it has not been shown to be harmful to people, and he believes listing transgenic farm locations in a public registry will make them targets of transgenic opponents.

Rainbow papaya makes up about 77 percent of the state’s papaya crop.

Cross-pollination between transgenic and non-transgenic papaya remains a concern, though scientists say genes are transferred to the plant’s seeds and not its fruit. Still, transgenic critics say that can still lead to uncertainty over what trees on the island, particularly those in backyard farms, are non-transgenic.

Dennis Gonsalves, who helped create transgenic papaya while at Cornell University, said eating it is essentially no different than consuming a virus-infected fruit, which a few transgenic critics have said they only choose to be certain that it has not been modified.

While transgenic papaya has been grown since 1998, researchers with the University of Hawaii continue to look at ways to improve the crop.

David Christopher, chair of molecular biosciences and bioengineering at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, told the Tribune-Herald he is researching how to add a grape gene to the plant to make it resistant to a fungus that frustrates growers.

Wille said her bill would still allow for new types of modified papaya to be grown.

If adopted by the council, Wille said she expects the bill to be challenged by the biotech industry, possibly at the state Legislature next session.

While striking a defiant tone during her Monday night presentation, she stated she is ready for a fight.

“I don’t do fear,” Wille said. “We are going ahead on this.”

Email Tom Callis at


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