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Setting the record straight on GMO rules

July 11, 2014 - 12:05am

I write in response to Holualoa resident Brian Lievens’ June 27 letter to the editor — “Reasoning of anti-GMO activists highly debatable” — regarding my leadership in the Hawaii Island effort to limit the cultivation of genetically modified crops. First, I wish to remind Mr. Lievens that this legislation (Bill 113, now Ordinance 13-121), was supported by a majority of the council members and was signed into law by Mayor Billy Kenoi.

I am, however, glad Mr. Lievens raised some points that at first glance would appear to discredit those who oppose the unrestricted cultivation of GMO crops, so that I can help him understand the reason why so many residents are opposed to allowing the further spread of GMO crop production here.

Second, I want to make clear that under County Ordinance 13-121, the GMO papaya industry is exempt from any restrictions other than to register with the county. That registration provides only a minimal protection to those who seek to grow the far more valuable non-GMO papayas, but at least the non-GMO crop farmers know whether they are in an area where contamination from GMO papaya is likely to occur.

Third, and most importantly, I want to debunk Mr. Lievens’ argument that GMO food crops are being unfairly targeted since there is less debate about GMO pharmaceuticals. Certainly GMO pharmaceuticals are not without critics, but there is clear justification for the far more massive opposition in our state and around the world to the unrestricted cultivation of GMO crops. GMO pharmaceuticals are subject to rigorous health and safety testing before being marketed whereas GMO crops are generally exempt from pre-marketing health and safety testing and instead are treated as “substantially equivalent “to the corresponding non-GMO crops. How is that for an anti-science political decision? Moreover, there is generally no post-marketing monitoring or health testing required of these “unregulated” GMO foods. Adding to this lack of government oversight, independent scientific studies of GMO foods are blocked because disclosure of the information needed to conduct the studies is considered secret proprietary information by the multinational chemical corporations that hold most all of the patents. Again, so much for supporting scientific inquiry in this critical area of gene-manipulated crops.

Fourth, another reason for fearing the unrestricted growing of GMO crops on this island is the horrific experience of non-GMO farmers around the world whose crops have been contaminated by neighboring GMO crops. Some of these non-GMO farmers whose crops have been contaminated, have even been sued by the multinational chemical corporation patent-holders seeking to usurp the profits from the contaminated crops. In the past decade, several attempts have been made to pass federal legislation to protect non-GMO farmers whose crops have been contaminated, from federal patent infringement lawsuits. Unfortunately, all of those federal bills failed in the wake of intensive lobbying by the biotech industry.

And on the state level, be aware efforts continue to place the GMO agro-chemical industry above the law and immune from any potential nuisance or trespass lawsuit in the event of GMO contamination of non-GMO farms. Maybe you can now understand why one Kona organic papaya farmer who testified in support of this legislation, explained in despair how upon finding that some of his organic papayas had been contaminated, that he cut down every one of his own papaya trees out of fear of being sued based on our federal patent laws.

Given all of the controversy around the state and in other nations where monoculture GMO crop production is disrupting more eco-friendly community based diverse agricultural practices, shouldn’t we hold the line, before allowing our island to be controlled by these multinational agro-chemical corporations?

Finally, stepping aside from the details of the GMO versus non-GMO controversy, at this point what is most important for me is that the people on this island have a meaningful say-so in the future of agriculture on this island. We must be vigilant to ensure that no new federal or state legislation becomes a vehicle to override our local legislation. Otherwise, these powerful multinational corporations will succeed in their effort to increasingly take control of our food production and erode our private property rights.

Margaret Wille is a Hawaii County Councilwoman representing North and South Kohala.

Viewpoint articles are the opinion of the writer and not necessarily the opinion of West Hawaii Today.

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