Kenoi Signs Anti-GMO Bill Into Law
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by Dave Smith
Mayor Billy Kenoi today signed into law a bill that bans any new uses of genetically modified crops on the Big Island.
Kenoi announced his decision to sign Bill 113 in a letter to the County Council.
The council passed the measure on Nov. 19 on a 6-3 vote.
The bill prohibits new open-air growing of genetically modified organisms, also known as GMOs.
Kenoi’s letter said he signed the bill “after careful deliberation and discussions with members of my administration and the public ….”
“Our community has a deep connection and respect for our land, and we all understand we must protect our island and preserve our precious natural resources,” Kenoi said. “We are determined to do what is right for the land because this place is unlike any other in the world.”
Under the new law, which takes effect immediately, those already growing GMO crops will be permitted to continue that practice, but must register with the county Department of Research and Development the area where that is occurring and pay a $100 annual fee for each location.
Farmers of GMO papayas may expand or relocate their crops to new areas as long as the registration condition is met.
However, those growing other transgenic crops, including Big Island Dairy which grows GMO corn on the Hamakua coast for cattle feed, must restrict those crops to where they have “customarily” been grown.
Those who break the law are subject to fines of up to $1,000 per day for each location in violation and also would be responsible for “all costs of investigation, as well as for court and legal costs.” They would also be responsible for “resulting damages to other non-genetically engineered crops, plants, neighboring properties, or water sources.”
The council has been wrestling with the matter for the past seven months, during which time it heard from hundreds of people both in favor and opposed to the bill over at least nine days of contentious testimony.
Kenoi’s letter acknowledged the strong differences of opinion.
“The debate over this bill has at times been divisive and hurtful, and some of our hard-working farmers who produce food for our community have been treated disrespectfully,” it said.
“It is time to end the angry rhetoric and reach out to our neighbors,” Kenoi said. “Our farmers are essential to creating a wholesome and sustainable food supply on this island, and they deserve to be treated with respect and aloha.”
Kenoi’s letter said that Big Island residents “must turn now to a meaningful, factual dialogue with one another.”
“With my approval of this bill, our administration will launch a year of research and data collection to investigate factual claims and to seek out new directions that farming in our community should take,” Kenoi said.
He said that will include analysis of the locations of both organic and conventional farms, the types of crops grown and estimates of their revenues, and of “the challenges our farmers face in meeting food safety and organic certification requirements.”
“We will work with our farmers and our ranchers to carefully monitor the impacts of this bill over the next year to separate speculation and guesswork from the facts,” the letter said.
Bill 113, which was introduced by Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille, was actually the third GMO-restricting measure taken up by the council.
The first was introduced by Wille in April but withdrawn in August for fine-tuning.
Wille and Ka`u Councilwoman Brenda Ford both introduced new bills in September.
Ford’s measure, which would have banned all GMO crops including transgenic papaya, failed to get out committee.
Testimony in support of Bill 113 took several forms, including opposition to GMO foods in general as well as condemnation of large bio-technology firms such as Monsanto which promote their usage.
Those in opposition included scientists and virtually all agricultural groups on the Big Island as well as many individual farmers who said that the measure was “anti-science” and would unnecessarily reduce their agricultural options.
In an apparent concession to them, Wille amended the bill to include an “emergency exemption” which would allow farmers a “genetically engineered remedy” to combat plant pestilence. The exemption would require approval from the council and would only be allowed if there is no other alternative solution.
Papayas genetically modified to resist the ringspot virus have been credited with saving the Big Island papaya industry after it was ravaged by the pathogen in the 1990s.
Wille also changed the bill to withhold from the public the names of the farmers and the exact location where the GMO papayas are grown. That was apparently in response to concerns expressed by papaya growers that making such information public would put their farms at risk of being targeted by anti-GMO activists.
There have been several instances of vandalism against papaya growers over the past few years in which orchards have been chopped down. Most if not all of those fields involved GMO papayas.
The law is the second passed in Hawaii involving GMO crops.
In October, the Kauai County Council approved a bill requiring agriculture companies to disclose their use of GMOs and pesticides.
Unlike the Big Island, Kauai is home to several large enterprises where GMO seed crops are grown.
(Kenoi alluded to that difference in his letter, saying, “With this new ordinance we are conveying that instead of global agribusiness corporations, we want to encourage and support community-based farming and ranching.”)
Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho, saying he had concerns about its legal ramifications – including whether counties have the authority to step into regulations that are usually the domain of the state – vetoed that island’s GMO measure, but the veto was overridden last month by a 5-2 council vote.
Some legal analysts say the legislation is likely to be challenged in court.
***Updated Dec. 6.***