GMO initiative will appear on Nov. 4 ballot; council defers

Maui County Council members declined to take action Thursday on a voter-initiated bill to impose a moratorium on genetically engineered crops until they can be proven safe.

The action by the council’s Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee means the initiative will be on the Nov. 4 general election ballot. Council members had the option of adopting the bill by passing it as an ordinance.

More than 9,000 valid signatures from registered voters were received in early June by the county clerk’s office for an initiative petition seeking an ordinance to suspend GMO crops in the county. Before reaching the ballot, the measure first came before the council, which has an Aug. 5 deadline to take action. Hundreds of people testified before the committee on both sides of the hotly debated measure.

After hearing hours of expert testimony and closed-door legal advice from Corporation Counsel Patrick Wong, committee Chairman Riki Hokama recommended allowing the measure to go to the ballot without council approval. He said he had “legal concerns” about the bill’s structure and about its not being in compliance with the Maui County Charter.

“In good conscience, I will not ask you to vote on this proposal because of the flaws and the other issues that the chair feels are too important to ignore,” he said.

Hokama said he believes that it’s “critical” to provide members of the public with “responsible and accurate information” to enable voters to make an informed decision.

“I believe that our community is mature and sophisticated enough that, if given the right information, the community can make the right decision,” he said.

Committee members Gladys Baisa, Mike White, Bob Carroll and Stacy Crivello expressed support for Hokama’s position.

In a written response to the council’s action, the SHAKA Movement on Thursday evening disputed the “loss of jobs” campaign by the biotech industry, saying that it “shows how our elected officials can be easily swayed by misinformation.”

“There is absolutely no need for any loss of jobs because Monsanto and Mycogen can go back to growing conventional hybrid seed crops as they did preceding GMOs,” the movement’s statement said. “Rising consumer rejection of GMO foods as well as the increasing number of countries banning GMOs is causing a decreased demand for GMO seeds and foods worldwide. At the same time, the world’s demand for safe conventional hybrid seeds is increasing. So this conversion is a logical choice for them.”

As the initiative moves on to the general election ballot, SHAKA organizers said they’re committed to giving Maui County residents “unbiased, factual information that is not controlled or manipulated by corporate interests.”

Earlier Thursday, committee members heard from leading GMO moratorium proponents Walter Ritte Jr., a Molokai community and Native Hawaiian activist, and Dr. Lorrin Pang, an initiator of the measure. Pang spoke as a private citizen and not in his capacity as state Department of Health Maui District health officer.

Pang gave a 28-slide PowerPoint presentation about potential health risks from pesticides and genetically engineered crops.

“I claim that the risk of harm of the pesticide mixtures is alarming and not adequately addressed prior to marketing,” he said.

During a break in the hearing, Pang said pesticides and GMO foods have not been subjected to all the studies that should be done to determine whether they cause health problems; those include population and animal studies and toxin identification and biological models.

“We don’t have all of these for the pesticides because they’re out there; we’re tracking them down,” he said. “We don’t have all of these for the GM foods because they’re not labeled. We can’t put together anything.”

Pang said he believes there’s “more than enough” reason to support the moratorium.

“You don’t have to show causation to have a moratorium,” he said. During the moratorium, “you can figure out the rest.”

Ritte said the GMO farming on Molokai is threatening the island’s culture, land, reef, water supply and subsistence economy.

Molokai residents get a third of their food supply from subsistence hunting and fishing, Ritte said. And those resources are being impacted by genetically engineered crops, such as discarded GMO corn husks that sicken axis deer relied on as food for families.

“The GMOs are contaminating our reefs, especially,” he said.

Dust from GMO crop fields create huge dust storms on Molokai and smother reefs, particularly in waters off of Pala’au ahupuaa in central Molokai, Ritte said. “The reefs have taken a huge hit.”

While people want jobs from biotech companies, Ritte said, their activities affect those who live off the land and ocean.

“They’re taking away our economy for their economy. There’s something wrong with this equation,” he said.

In a long-distance phone call, Michael Firko, deputy administrator of Biotechnology Regulatory Services for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, assured committee members that genetically engineered crops are strictly regulated to safeguard plant health. (The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for ensuring the safety of human food and animal feed. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates pesticides.)

In Maui County, there are 132 active authorized plantings of genetically engineered crops, he said. Those authorized to plant these crops are required to adhere to specific conditions in federal regulations and any other conditions in permits. (Corn, soybeans and wheat are the three genetically engineered crops in Maui County under federal regulation.)

To ensure that regulations are followed, federal officials do inspections and audits of plantings, he said. “With rare exceptions, regulated entities are found to be in full compliance with federal requirements,” Firko said in a letter to council members.

He added that when there is a compliance infraction, his agency “moves quickly and takes actions to bring the regulated entities into compliance with measures to protect U.S. agriculture and the environment.”

In remarks during committee deliberations, Crivello, who holds the Molokai residency seat, said she was concerned about the loss of employment, particularly on Molokai, which has the state’s highest rate of unemployment. (Biotech companies Monsanto and Mycogen Seeds warned earlier this month that passage of the initiative could lead to the loss of more than 500 jobs and millions in tax revenue.)

“I’ve seen the pains, the loss of homes” when people have been unable to pay their mortgages, she said. “I’ve seen outsiders come in and sweep up these foreclosed homes, and the people who’ve lost them became tenants.”

Crivello said she agreed that the environment needs to be preserved for future generations. More effort should be focused on protecting island watersheds to protect the health of island reefs, native plants and the forest, she said.

“We have to find the right balance,” she said. “We’re no longer isolated. We live in a global society.”

Crivello alluded to testimony about the seed companies’ threat to Native Hawaiian culture and a subsistence lifestyle on Molokai.

Yet, “the closure of the seed companies would definitely impact our culture,” she said. “We are noted as being an island of family, a caring and sharing community. This contentiousness is not caused by the corporations.”

She noted that the initiative process started by the SHAKA Movement (the acronym standing for Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and the Aina) would continue. However, “I cannot embrace the word ‘shaka’ with the movement because shaka to me means a big hug of aloha,” she said, adding that she would simply refer to it as the movement because “there’s no shaka in it.”

Speaking against the divisiveness brought by the issue of the GMO moratorium, she said: “Don’t kill the spirit of the people. We kill the spirit of the people; we destroy the culture, whether it’s Hawaiian culture or local culture.”

* Brian Perry can be reached at