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Council Gives Final Approval to GMO Restrictions

November 19, 2013, 5:18 PM HST (Updated November 22, 2013, 12:58 PM)
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The Hawaii County Council today voted to restrict the use of genetically modified crops on the Big Island.

Meeting in Kona, the council voted 6-3 to ban new open-air uses on the island of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

The vote came on the second and final reading of Bill 113, which passed first reading 6-2 on Oct. 16. Those voting against the bill then were councilmen Gregor Ilagan of Puna and Dennis “Fresh” Onishi of Hilo.

Today, council Chairman J Yoshimoto, who also represents parts of Hilo, also cast a “no” vote.

Zendo Kern, the other Puna councilman who was absent for the October vote, today initially voted “kanalua,” which translates literally to “doubtful” but usually means with reservations,  before casting an affirmative vote.

Yoshimoto told Big Island Now there were several reasons for his change of mind.

He said he initially voted for the bill in October partly because of changes made to the bill by its sponsor, Waimea Councilwoman Margaret Wille, to allow a council-approved “emergency exemption” if needed to combat a new plant disease or pest.

Then, early this month Yoshimoto submitted several amendments of his own for the bill, one of which would have had it apply only to plants “intended for human or animal consumption.”

That would have exempted flower growers.

Another amendment would have removed the bill’s requirement that those currently using GMO technology, primarily growers of papaya engineered to resist the ringspot virus that devastated the industry in the 1990s, to register the locations where their crops are grown.

A dairy in Hamakua growing GMO corn for cattle feed also would be subject to the registration requirement.

A third Yoshimoto amendment would have allowed the growing of GMO crops if approved by either of the island’s planning commissions as well as the council.

However, Yoshimoto withdrew the amendments from consideration. That was largely because of a lack of support, he said today.

At least one Big Island nursery is attempting to use GMO technology on anthuriums to develop pest resistance and new colors. The passage of the bill means that those farmers would not be able to expand those efforts.

“I don’t see how we can limit their livelihood,” he said.

Yoshimoto said he voted against the bill today because of the way it would restrict farmers’ use of technology.

He said he is most concerned about the impact on Big Island agriculture from a new plant disease or pest.

“This bill is more reactive than proactive,” he said, adding that scientists need to be able to prepare for the possibility of such a threat. “I don’t think we can afford to be reactive.”

He said he understands GMO opponents concerns about big biotech corporations and some of the crops they grow such as GMO corn, but believes that should be considered as a separate issue.

Yoshimoto said if the bill had been tailored specifically to that, he believes the vote would have been unanimously in favor.

Yoshimoto said he looks forward to the convening of an ad hoc task force already approved to study the matter further.

He believes the best solution is to establish buffer zones around GMO crops and around organic farms to prevent impacts from the former.

“We need to co-exist,” he said.

Today’s meeting was a continuation of one that began on Nov. 5, where the vote was delayed because of lengthy testimony both in favor and against the measure.

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The bill, which carries penalties of up to $1,000 a day for violations, now goes to Mayor Billy Kenoi, who can sign it, allow it to become law without his signature or veto it.

If he takes the last route, it takes a two-thirds majority vote of the council – six votes – to override the veto.

Kenoi could not be reached for comment.

Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho recently vetoed a bill approved by that island’s council restricting both GMOs and the use of pesticides. The two sometimes go hand-in-hand as some GMO crops have been altered to resist the effects of herbicides such as Round-Up, which allows for more efficient weed control.

Kauai’s seven-member council later voted 5-2 to override Carvalho’s veto.

***Updated 10:48 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 20.***

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