Large biotech companies like Syngenta, Monsanto, Pioneer, Dow and BASF have long been experimenting with GMO crops and seeds in Hawaii. They have farms on Oahu, Kauai and Molokai, but they've never operated on Hawaii's Big Island -- and now they never will.
On Tuesday, the Hawaii County Council passed a bill, 6-3, that forbids biotech companies from operating on the Big Island and prohibits all new genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. (The papaya industry, which has more than 200 farms on the Big Island, is exempt from the bill.)
The bill includes fines of $1,000 a day for violators.
Mayor Billy Kenoi hasn’t indicated his stance on the bill, but he has 10 days to veto it. The county council could override a veto with a vote from six members.
Passage of Bill 113 comes just days after the Hawaiian island of Kauai pushed forward legislation that severely increases regulations of biotech companies.
GMO Debate In Hawaii Rages
In September, public testimonies regarding Bill 113 were nearly apocalyptic. Critics of GMOs insisted that such crops might cause cancer, birth deformities, tumors, sterility and even widespread devastation.
One woman, Helene Love, suggested that GMOs could be as bad as a nuclear disaster. “Forcing genes of one species into another and changing the DNA of plants is not natural," she testified, "and could turn out to be a huge danger, similar to nuclear disasters of our planet that we can’t put out.”
Many Americans already eat GMO foods regularly: 90 percent of corn and 95 percent of soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. According to a number of federal agencies, including the American Medical Association and the Food and Drug Administration, there is no scientific evidence that shows approved GMOs are harmful.
For the most part, local farmers in Hawaii don't grow GMO crops. But, according to Honolulu Civil Beat, small farmers "worry that they won't have access to future, cutting-edge technologies that could help in their operations."
Dean Okimoto, president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, told Civil Beat that while the bill targets large biotech, it could end up hurting small farmers down the road. "How can you say you can only farm what you are farming now?" he said. "You may be putting guys out of business by restricting what they can and cannot use going forward. The cattle guys are depending on trying to develop a drought resistant grass."
While it may seem extreme to some, Bill 113 is actually the tamer of two bills the Big Island has considered. Bill 109 would have banned all genetically modified plants, including papayas already grown on the island, and it would have punished violators with jail time.
"I keep saying this is really modest," Councilwoman Margaret Wille, who introduced the bill, told Civil Beat. "All I did was say everyone halt where they are. This is status quo."
"We are at a juncture," she said of the Big Island. "Do we move forward in the direction of the agro-chemical monoculture model of agriculture, or do we move toward eco-friendly, diversified farming?"