HILO >> A Hawaii County Council committee has advanced a bill that would ban the open-air cultivation of genetically modified organisms but create an exemption for papayas and other GMO crops already grown on the island.
The Public Safety and Mass Transit Committee voted 6-2 Tuesday to send the bill to the council. Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan voted no while Council Chair J Yoshimoto voted no with reservations. Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi was absent.
The Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported the bill needs two council votes and the mayor’s signature to be adopted.
Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille has called the measure an attempt to “draw a line in the sand” against the introduction of GMO crops she believes may harm people and the environment.
But agricultural organizations and university researchers criticized it for limiting options for farmers and ranchers seeking to lower costs or fight pests and disease.
The only GMO crops currently known to be cultivated on the island are papaya varieties engineered to be resistant to the ringspot virus, and corn that a Hamakua Coast dairy grows for feed.
Even though papaya would be exempt from the ban, papaya farmers still oppose the bill because it would require commercial papaya farmers to register with the county and pay a $100 annual fee.
Papaya industry representatives say they fear a public registry could lead to farmers being targeted by GMO opponents. They also worry a public registry could hurt sales.
“We’re kind of scared,” said LJ Bernardo, who runs a 5-acre farm near Kapoho with his brother, JR Bernardo.
Their farm was vandalized last week when about 100 papaya trees were cut overnight. The brothers suspect they were targeted for growing GMO papaya.
If adopted, the bill would be the second GMO bill passed by the county.
The county banned GMO taro and coffee in 2008.
The Kauai County Council is also considering legislation that would regulate GMO crops.