When local politics trumps science and farmers
From April to December 2013, Hawaii County Councilwomen Margaret Wille and Brenda Ford spearheaded the effort to ban or restrict the use of GE crops, including GE papaya, on the Big Island. During those eight months and until the final vote on December 3, the GE issue eclipsed unemployment, crime, poverty, housing, and other critical issues facing the Hawaiian County Council, the legislative body responsible for passing laws that govern the Big Island.
The eight-month anti-GE legislative battle began in April 2013, when Wille, who represents a relatively rural area on the northwest side of the island called District 9, introduced the first of three anti-GE bills the council would debate. The time spent on the first bill alone made it “the most contentious issue to face the county’s legislative body in decades…and prompted rallies and protests from both sides,” according to the news service bigislandnow.com’s report of July 3, 2013.
Next, Ford, who represents Districts 6 and 7 along Hawaii’s wealthy Kona coast, introduced a bill that would ban growing all GE crops after 30 months, including GE papaya, and subject growers to fines of up to $1,000 per day. That bill was withdrawn for lack of support.
In October, the Council started deliberating a new bill proposed by Wille that banned “open air cultivation, propagation, development or testing of genetically engineered crops or plants.” Her bill exempted cultivation of the papaya Gonsalves created because it had already “contaminated” the island and couldn’t be removed.
On November 19, 2013, the Hawaii County Council adopted Bill 113 by a vote of 6-3. Bill 113 leaves many questions unanswered but it fulfills Wille’s desire to “draw a line in the sand” and “get something done now.” I asked two Council members who would enforce this law and whether the law would also restrict the use of GE corn and GE soybeans to feed cows for a new dairy in Hamakua, one of only two dairies in Hawaii. Both Council members said they did not know. Even after the law was enacted on March 3, 2014, questions about the bill’s specifics are still being debated.
As Hawaiian farmers await the fallout of the new law, Ross Sibucao continues to put in long days farming his 20 acres of papaya. He was recently elected president of the Hawaiian Papaya Industry Association, which is now caught in a political and public relations firestorm. Papaya farmers are threatened by the virus on one hand and legislation on the other. Sibucao says his daily farming activities are now trumped by the need to educate Council members and others about papaya growers’ plight. He finds he has little free time to see his girlfriend.
Sibucao and others who continue to grow GE papaya under the restrictions of the anti-GE law feel singled out and villainized. “This law makes us Hawaiian papaya growers feel like sex criminals since we have to register with local authorities, just like them,” says Sibucao. “We have a black cloud hanging over our heads and all we are trying to do is produce papaya.” Meanwhile, the general public in Hawaii is inundated with anti-GE information from multiple well-coordinated sources.