WAILUKU - Are genetically engineered food products safe? And, should such products be labeled to give consumers informed choices?
Those questions hung over the Council Chambers on Friday as Maui County Council members heard sometimes emotional testimony, mostly in favor of requiring the labeling of food with genetically modified organisms, also known as GMOs.
While there were no clear answers, council members voted 8-0 to adopt a resolution asking state lawmakers next year to consider a bill requiring the labeling of genetically modified food products. Mike White was excused.
Council Member Elle Cochran proposed the resolution, noting that council members had taken the same action last year, but the state Legislature did not act on the request.
Council Members Don Couch and Gladys Baisa voted "aye" with reservations, saying they wanted to keep the matter in committee for more discussion.
After hearing from more than a dozen testifiers, most in support of labeling GMO products, Couch said he had heard some "compelling testimony," although some of it was "extreme stuff, too."
He noted that a number of testifiers had alluded to a recent study on GMO crops that had been fed to rats and the adverse health effects on them. But Couch said he understood that study had been found to be "questionable by most scientists."
Testifier Colette Evans said the study published Wednesday is the result of the "first-ever, peer-reviewed, long-term animal studies." Other studies were short term, she said.
Evans said a two-year study found symptoms began to appear as soon as four months, and "that there were as high as a 30 and 40 percent abnormal upswings in premature death, tumors and cancers in rats fed a (genetically modified) food diet, versus those fed a non-GM diet."
"This still doesn't tell us what it does to humans," she said, "but I think we can agree it is noteworthy. In the scientific world, this is a major red flag that further testing is needed before something could be deemed safe for consumption."
In response to the study, a Monsanto representative provided, via email, an Op-Ed story by Jon Entine, published in Forbes (online) Thursday.
Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, said that there have been more than 100 peer-reviewed studies over the years, many by independent, nonindustry scientists, that "have demonstrated the safety of (genetically engineered) crops and food."
Entine said the recent study by French researchers, led by Gilles-Eric Seralini of the University of Caen, was "out of sync with all of the published research so far showing GM food and crops to be safe and nutritionally equivalent or even superior . . . to conventional and organic foods."
Entine quoted Marion Nestle, professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, in questioning the study.
Nestle explained her skepticism, saying the French study was "weirdly complicated and unclear on key issues: what the controls were fed, relative rates of tumors, . . . what the mechanism might be. I can't think of a biological reason why GMO corn should do this."
Luna Carlisle, who said she's a former U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher, asked council members to support GMO labeling.
"It is no exaggeration to say that this is a matter of life and death," she said. "The rest of the world knows and has taken action against corporatocracy that profits from poisoning us all. Stand up. Be pono. Our lives and the lives of future generations are in your hands."
Dr. Lorrin Pang, speaking as a private citizen, said products should be fully tested for efficacy and safety before being released into the market.
"The hindsight of safety claims 'that we were right to take the gamble' is never an argument and depends on luck," he said.
David Stoltzfus, site lead for Monsanto on Maui, testified against asking the Legislature to require GMO labeling.
"Simply, and concisely, food labeling is a federal issue," he said. "Federal law already requires accurate food labeling that provides information relevant to health, safety and nutrition of all food products sold in the United States."
He said that the Food and Drug Administration establishes uniform labeling requirements to be consistent with consumer protection and commerce on a nationwide basis.
"Federal research and regulatory agencies have conducted years of studies that show no health or safety concerns that would call for the labeling of genetically modified crops," he said. "Quite to the contrary, this research has found crops currently available from biotechnology to be safe as those produced via more conventional methods."
Maui Tomorrow Foundation Executive Director Irene Bowie said Californians will vote Nov. 6 on GMO labeling in Proposition 37, which would require "labeling on raw or processed food offered for sale to consumers if made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways."
She said that Monsanto has donated $4.2 million to defeat Proposition 37, but in the late 1990s, the company ran advertising in Britain that supported food labeling. She quoted from a Monsanto ad that said at the time: "Before you buy a potato, or any other food, you may want to know whether it's the product of food biotechnology. We have complete confidence that our food crops are as safe and nutritious as the standard alternatives . . . We believe you should be aware of all the facts before making a purchase."
"I agree," Bowie said. "And (I) want to know, in all the detail available, how my food is produced. A bill requiring labeling is not a ban on foods containing genetically engineered material; it's a right-to-know law allowing us to know what's in the food we eat and how it's produced."
Hana resident John Blumer-Buell said he has no doubt that East Maui residents would support labeling genetically engineered products.
"As citizens, we have the right to choose," he said, adding that if consumers had the right to choose, people would not purchase genetically modified products and "GMOs will go away."
Blumer-Buell added that East Maui residents would like to be in a "GMO-free zone."
Monsanto's Stoltzfus said the requirement to label products from a genetically modified crop "makes a false or negative assumption that a genetically engineered crop is somehow inferior to conventional or organic crops."
Stoltzfus asked council members to consider whether the labeling requirement would put the state of Hawaii at a disadvantage in its food supply, or whether it would result in higher prices and a reduced selection of foods for consumers. He also asked if the labeling system would cause economic hardship for Hawaii farmers, wholesalers and retailers or whether the state would need to hire and train additional inspectors for a labeling system.
Monsanto has farms on Maui, Molokai and Oahu and employs more than 1,000 residents statewide, according to a company representative. On Maui, the company employs 300 full-time workers and 100 seasonal workers. They work on about 700 acres in Kihei, where 95 percent of the crop is corn, with the balance being soybeans. On Molokai, Monsanto has about 100 full-time workers; the number of seasonal employees was not immediately available.
* Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.