EPA officials say no health issues seen in GMO papayas

WAILUKU – Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told members of a Maui County Council committee reviewing a voter-initiated anti-genetically modified organism measure Tuesday that they have not heard of any health issues related to eating genetically engineered rainbow papaya, developed on the Big Island to combat a commercially devastating virus.

One Maui doctor was not convinced about that.

Dr. Lorrin Pang, a Maui County Health Department official who was speaking as a private citizen, told members of the council’s Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee that there could be risks, even if an EPA scientist said that the protein in the genetically engineered papaya occurs naturally.

“Just because it occurs naturally, doesn’t make it safe,” said Pang, who is one of the authors of the initiative.

There are things in nature that humans are exposed to that may cause health issues, such as water that is contaminated, he said.

According to the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association, the rainbow papaya, a cross between two different varieties, is the first genetically engineered papaya with resistance to papaya ringspot virus. The rainbow papaya, planted in 1997, helped stem the decline of the papaya industry in Hawaii.

Chris Wozniak, EPA biotechnology special assistant, said eating the rainbow papaya is the same as eating a papaya with a virus, which is a “common occurrence.”

Wozniak and Pang were among the experts called by the council committee as it continued its deliberations Tuesday of an initiative to place a moratorium on the cultivation of GMOs in Maui County. After listening to more than seven hours of testimony from 205 people Monday, members queried federal, state and county experts and regulatory officials for their thoughts about issues brought up by testifiers.

The committee – in another lengthy meeting that ended at about 7 p.m. Tuesday – heard from officials with the EPA and state departments of agriculture and health, along with one of Hawaii’s leading economists.

The measure being discussed was spearheaded by the nonprofit SHAKA Movement. SHAKA stands for Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and the Aina. The initiative calls for the suppression of all “genetically engineered operations and practices” in Maui County until companies prove the activity is safe, through an environmental public health impact statement submitted to the County Council for approval.

SHAKA gathered 9,062 valid signatures, surpassing the 8,465 needed for the measure to be considered by the council for approval, and if not, placed on the Nov. 4 general election ballot as a voter initiative.

According to the Maui County Charter, the council has until Aug. 5 to act on the proposed ordinance. If the council does not adopt the ordinance, it will be placed on the ballot.

The experts Tuesday – with the exception of Pang – did not pinpoint any health problems related to GMOs or any compliance issues with Maui County seed companies.

Council members spent two hours on a telephone conference call with EPA officials in Washington, D.C., and at a regional office in San Francisco. Bill Jordan, EPA deputy office director for pesticide programs, explained that the agency registers and develops the labels for pesticide use.

The basis for the labeling comes from scientific information from chemical companies, as well as data gathered from other sources, he said.

The EPA also regulates some genetically engineered plants, such as the rainbow papaya, corn and soybeans.

Jordan said that the EPA does not perform human testing on the health effects of pesticides because that poses ethical issues. The EPA does do testing on rats and mice.

Scott Enright, chairman of the state Department of Agriculture, told the committee that the basis for the initiative is “fallacious” and is not based on science.

“Any additional regulations . . . on pesticides or on GE (genetically engineered) crops need to be driven by science, and this is not driven by science,” said Enright, whose department oversees inspections on pesticide use in Hawaii.

He admitted that the Agriculture Department needs more personnel and has only one inspector for Maui County to check for compliance with pesticides. However, he said that the state is “not having problems” with large farms in Hawaii.

“They are doing an excellent job in applying pesticides,” he said, noting that seed companies have “state-of-the-art equipment” and can monitor precisely where pesticides are being sprayed.

In answer to a question from a council member, Enright said that he was not aware of major concerns about pesticide drift in Kihei. This issue was raised by testifiers Monday.

However, Thomas Matsuda, manager of the Agriculture Department’s pesticides program, said his office has received complaints about drift and that inspectors have gone out to investigate. He did not elaborate on the findings.

Gary Gill, deputy director of the Health Department’s environmental health division, told council members that he believed the initiative was less about health issues and more about home rule and local control.

On the economic impacts of the initiative, council members heard from Hawaii economist Paul Brewbaker, who questioned the need for an initiative that will shut down an industry to just conduct studies. He was in favor of studies but not the moratorium.

If a moratorium is enacted, Maui County could see an economic loss of $50 million annually, about half of that in lost payroll from 650 full-time jobs lost.

Brewbaker estimated Molokai’s losses at one-third of Maui’s in response to a question from Council Member Stacy Crivello, who holds the Molokai residency seat.

Replacing the seed companies will be difficult, he said, recalling the departures of large private companies from Del Monte to Molokai Ranch that have faced challenges on Molokai.

“There is not much else that brings extra proceeds into the Molokai economy other than government support,” Brewbaker said.

No action was taken. Committee Chairman Riki Hokama said a meeting will be scheduled later this month.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.