WAIKAPU - One day after a Maui County Council committee deferred a citizen's initiative that calls for a temporary moratorium on genetically engineered crops, Mayor Alan Arakawa said at a Maui Chamber of Commerce luncheon Friday that he, personally, believes genetically modified organisms are not harmful.
"As someone who was brought up on a farm and as someone who has had to deal with the agricultural industry all my life, analyzing all the data we have up to this point . . . all the people that are knowledgeable in this field that I respect, I know, there seems to be a preponderance of evidence that there is no evidence of anything wrong with using GMOs," Arakawa said in response to a question from the audience at the luncheon.
About 100 people - including elected officials, small-business owners and employees of sponsor Alexander & Baldwin - attended the meeting held at the Kahili Golf Course in Waikapu.
Arakawa made clear that in his capacity as mayor, though, his role was only to facilitate discussion and to provide the public with as much information as possible. His administration has put up information on GMOs, Monsanto, studies, reports and other items on the county website at co.maui.hi.us/index.aspx?nid=1966.
With the council's decision to take no action on the initiative Thursday, the anti-GMO measure will appear on the Nov. 4 general election ballot for voters to decide.
The SHAKA (Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and the Aina) Movement has called for a moratorium on the cultivation, growing and testing of GMO crops until they can be proven safe.
Arakawa said that it is impossible to prove anything is 100 percent safe.
"Very simply, there's nothing that we could ever do to guarantee that anything, anything is 100 percent safe," Arakawa said. "There's no guarantee that a meteorite is not going to come crashing down through this roof tomorrow. There's no guarantee the water you drink has never touched any contaminant before."
He warned voters that they should "look at the science and the facts" to make an informed decision that would affect not only the agricultural community but also small businesses.
"There's almost nothing that doesn't have a correlating effect on something else," Arakawa said. "If we keep saying no, no, no to everything, we're going to have nothing."
Maui Chamber of Commerce President Pamela Tumpap said that the Chamber still was evaluating the economic impacts a GMO moratorium could have in the county and the state.
"The biggest impact the community would see is the job loss and the losses from such a large company in not only Maui County but our state. Their contributions to our tax base and their employees' contributions into the tax base, that's going to be a huge loss for us," Tumpap said after the meeting.
Tumpap added that other industries besides agriculture may see "trickle-down" effects if the moratorium were to be adopted but did not identify any specifically.
The SHAKA Movement released a statement Thursday in response to the council's decision, saying "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 seed companies warned earlier this month that the passage of the initiative could lead to the loss of more than 500 jobs. If that's the case, the SHAKA Movement said in its statement that "the same state and federal job programs that assisted workers when pineapple, sugar cane and even the Molokai Hotel shut down can be utilized if needed."
The statement added that the SHAKA Movement would be willing to help biotech workers find other jobs, possibly in "ecotourism and small farm sustainable agriculture," should the initiative pass.
The SHAKA Movement garnered more than 9,000 valid signatures from registered voters in early June for an initiative petition seeking an ordinance to suspend GMO crops in the county.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at email@example.com.