The Senate has decided to hear a GMO labeling bill, after initially choosing not to in part over concerns about its constitutionality. House Bill 174 would require a label on all GMO, or genetically engineered, produce imported to Hawai'i. Senate leadership had indicated it would not discuss the proposal, but that changed Tuesday afternoon, as a result of public pressure from anit-GMO supporters and fellow lawmakers.
"We had a broader discussion with all of the members of the majority caucus present. It was decided that there was enough of an interest to have the bill heard, so we're a democracy," said Senator Clarence Nishihara, the Senate Agriculture Committee Chair.
The GMO issue has sparked a heated debate this legislative session. Supporters of the proposal to require labeling believe GMO's are a health and environmental threat. Senator Nishihara disagrees, he says he stands by the federal government's position that GMO food poses no threat to consumers and cites scientific research that says it's indistinguishable for non-GMO food.
"I don't know how many different ways you can say it to different people and some people will never be convinced, but I think they want it to be heard so they'll have the opportunity. They'll have the chance to say what they have to say," said Senator Nishihara.
Representative Mele Carroll co-authored the bill, which crossed over to the Senate after passing through the House with several reservations.
"The bill was just to allow for the consumer to make a choice based on the labeling, and just giving people that choice – to me – is what America is all about," said Rep. Carroll. "We're not here to shut anybody down – there may be benefits to providing GMO products out there, and I think this is an opportunity for them to say what is it that makes your product better."
The GMO labeling bill, as it's currently written, has recently been challenged as unconstitutional.
A letter from the Attorney General describes it as violating "First Amendment protections of commercial speech" and the "commerce clause".
Representative Carroll says she understands the concerns, but explains that's why there's a legislative process to address them through open discussion.
"I think this is a real opportunity to plead the truth and part of that truth is just tell the consumer what's in the food and how you're producing that food— that's all," said Rep. Carroll.
The public hearing for House Bill 174 has been set for Thursday, March 21 at 9 – 11 a.m. in Conference Room #229. Testimony may be submitted up to 24 hours prior to the hearing, each individual will be given three minutes to speak. According to Senator Nishihara – the Agriculture Committee will take the lead on the bill, though it will be heard by both the Commerce and Consumer Protection and Health Committees at the same time. It it passes through all three committees, it then heads to the Senate's Ways and Means Committee before a vote on the Senate floor.