WAILUKU - The issue of genetically modified crops, especially taro, found its way back to the Maui County Council on Friday - except this time it was folded into a larger issue of county home rule.
Council Member Sol Kaho'ohalahala introduced a resolution at the regular council meeting in opposition to a bill from the state House of Representatives. The House bill, which has now passed to the state Senate for review, would preempt any county's ability to ban or restrict the testing, growth and sale of genetically modified plant organisms (GMOs).
The council voted unanimously in favor of Kaho'ohalahala's resolution, although council members gave no indication Friday that they would seek a county GMO prohibition in the near future.
"Home rule is home rule, and don't you try and mess with it," said Council Member Jo Anne Johnson.
The measure passed by the council Friday sends a strong message but carries no legal weight at the state Legislature.
Kaho'ohalahala's resolution argues that the Legislature's bill would significantly weaken county rule-making powers. He said the challenge now is to fight the bill at the Legislature.
In the past few years, local taro farmers and activists have led efforts to convince the Maui County Council and state Legislature to enact laws to block the development of genetically modified taro and other Hawaii crops, saying the consequences of altering nature are still unknown.
Demonstrators have said taro carries enormous cultural and spiritual significance and must not be tweaked in laboratories. But their proposed GMO bans haven't yet passed at the state Capitol.
On Friday, officials from the Maui County Farm Bureau, Monsanto Co. and University of Hawaii, Manoa, spoke in favor of GMO crops and the state's burgeoning biotechnology industry. Genetically modified plants are more resistant to disease, grow more plentiful, have a spotless safety record and provide a much-needed competitive edge to Hawaii agriculture in a global economy, they said.
"GMO crops are safe and well regulated," said Harold Keyser, UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources county administrator, who said he was speaking on his own behalf. "The accumulated area planted since 1996 (in 25 countries) now exceeds 2 billion acres, again with a perfect safety record."
GMO opponents said the science is in its infancy, but Keyser said that wasn't true, and that 647 published government- and industry-sponsored scientific studies all say genetic modification is safe.
Walter Ritte, a Native Hawaiian activist, joined other Molokai residents in criticizing the state bill. They worried about the effects of accidental cross-pollination between natural and GMO crops, and warned of potential harm to children and adults.
Ritte called the bill introduced by House Speaker Calvin Say "ridiculous and outlandish."
A small contingent from the Big Island, including the Hawaii County Council's Vice Chairman Pete Hoffmann, also spoke out against the House bill on Friday and asked for solidarity from Maui County. In November, the Hawaii County Council voted to ban genetically modified taro and coffee on the Big Island.
Kaho'ohalahala said it became clear to him that the County Council would be remiss if it did not oppose House Bill 1226.
"The delicate nature of Hawaii's unique ecosystems and the health, safety and welfare of Hawaii's residents are best maintained and protected by its respective communities," the resolution states.
Last year, the Maui County Council unanimously supported a state Senate bill that would have placed a decade-long moratorium on genetically altering taro. The bill later died, as have similar bills proposed over the past three years.
But in addition to the proposal to block counties from banning GMOs, the House also currently has before it Bill 1663, which would prohibit the genetic modification of taro. That bill passed the House Agriculture Committee earlier this month and is awaiting public hearings in two other committees.
Paul Koehler, manager of scientific and community affairs for Monsanto Co. of Hawaii, told the Maui County Council on Friday that the seed industry has been here for more than 40 years, and is now one of the fastest-growing agricultural segments in the state. The industry provides jobs and economic diversity and has a stellar track record, he said.
"Our farmers are struggling across the state, and if our industry is to continue, we need to have the tools to make us competitive," said Warren Watanabe, executive director of the Maui County Farm Bureau. "People may ask, 'Why don't the farmers come out in support?' That's because they are in the field farming."
But former council candidate Kai Nishiki said the county must protect citizens' rights to determine what happens in their own communities.
* Councilors voted to pass an ordinance on second reading allowing home-based occupations in various zoning districts, particularly residential and country town business and rural areas. However, the law, which was already vetted and approved by the county's planning commissions, only amends the definition of "home occupations."
The second part of the bill proposed by Kaho'ohalahala would open up a larger debate, probably starting in April, about what kind of businesses would be allowed in single-family homes.
Many say the effort should be fast tracked to promote the growth of new small businesses during a recession. However, the issue also remains controversial because of concerns about noise and parking in residential neighborhoods.
* The council voted to approve two nominees to the Board of Water Supply who were controversial because of their links to development companies.
Donald Gerbig and John Hoxie Jr. were each approved by votes of 5-4. Council members Johnson, Kaho'ohalahala, Bill Medeiros and Wayne Nishiki voted no.
Some of the yes votes, Danny Mateo, Mike Molina, Gladys Baisa, Joe Pontanilla and Mike Victorino, said they liked that the applicants had knowledge of water sourcing and distribution.
Hoxie is the former vice president of farming operations at Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. Gerbig, a retired executive with BEI (formerly Brewer Environmental), stirred the resentments of some Mauians with a letter to the editor published in The Maui News. In it, he challenged an earlier letter from Isaac Moriwake, attorney for Earthjustice, who had criticized HC&S.
The "no" votes on Friday said they didn't question the nominees' integrity, but had some concerns about potential conflicts of interest.
Jeffery Rubugio, a civil engineer for Kaanapali Development Co., was rejected by a 5-4 vote. Victorino, who changed his vote to a "no," said he had nothing against Rubugio, but he and other members said they would prefer Mayor Charmaine Tavares nominate someone from East Maui, preferably a taro farmer.
* Council members also unanimously approved resolutions authorizing the purchase from Molokai Properties Inc. the Maunaloa Community Center for $700,000 and 5 acres in Kaunakakai to build a fire station that will cost an estimated $12.3 million. The projects have been in the works for seven and 10 years, respectively.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.