KAILUA-KONA, HAWAII (HawaiiNewsNow) - So many people signed up to testify on a GMO bill ban in Hawai'i County, it was impossible to hear from them all. Opponents and advocates will both have to return Wednesday if they want to address the City Council.
GMO or genetically modified organisms and their use in genetically modified foods have been a topic of hotly contested debate across the state in recent months. Currently, Hawai'i Island is the only county in the state that doesn't have biotech farms growing seed. The bill that's up for discussion would maintain that by restricting the introduction of new GMO crops.
Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille introduced Bill 79, which would prevent farmers from planting any genetically modified crops not already grown on the island.
"This is a tipping point and it's a choice of which direction this island is going to go in," said Wille by phone during a brief break in today's marathon public testimony hearing. "We're really the only Hawai'i island that hasn't been effectively taken over by the GMO biotech industry corporations. It would certainly be nice to have one island in this state that's pro-natural farming."
By 9 a.m. city council members already faced over 12 hours of testimony and a stack about a foot high of more than 200 documents that had been submitted, along with YouTube videos. By Noon, more than 350 people had signed up to voice their opinion. There was so much interest in today's public hearing, four additional satellite locations in Hilo, Waimea, Pahoa and Oceanview were opened to accommodate the overflow expected at the main City Council site in Kona.
Among those who support the bill is Hawai'i Island resident, Roseanne Barr.
"I live by Waipio Valley and everybody talks about that's a seed bank for the future. So the people have big ecological consciousness and awareness here, so this is like Ground Zero of GMO and a lot of us are really passionate against it," said Barr.
GMO biotech is the state's largest agriculture industry and is reportedly worth about $243 million. Genetically-modified seed increases crop production at lower costs because they're resistant to herbicides and insects.
"This piece of legislation is mistaken in its basic assumption that agriculture biotech crops present health and safety issues," said Hawaii Crop Improvement Association President Mark Phillipson during his testimony.
Right now the only GMO crop growing on Hawaii Island is the transgenic Rainbow papaya, which is resistant to the ringspot virus. Bill 79 would allow Rainbow papaya to still be grown, but would require farmers to prove the crops are "physically contained" and incapable of contaminating non-transgenic products.
"I'm against this bill, and I would like for them to bring it back up and put a task force together of all the folks that are relevant to this discussion. And what the discussion needs to be is how are we going to achieve food security?" said Richard Ha, a banana farmer.
Testimony will resume Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. at all five council sites and additional people will be allowed to sign up.
"I think most people are coming because they really feel, 'Maybe I am going to have a say so in what happens to me' and 'Let's make this decision on the local level', whatever that decision may be," said Wille.
If Bill 79 passes it would be the first anti-GMO legislation passed in Hawai'i County since 2008 when a ban on transgenic coffee and taro was adopted.