I am struggling to write this GMO essay. Maybe it’s because I’m learning things that challenge my long-held beliefs. You see, I’m beginning to wonder if there might be such a thing as a good GMO.
Wait! Before you throw that tomato at me, look at it – red, fragrant with that tangy smell, just the right amount of firmness, warm from the sun, begging to be eaten. What if a tomato virus came along that we could not control with conventional means? What if creating a viral resistant tomato using genetic modification could save it? Yes, researchers can always use the old fashioned methods of selective breeding. But should we lump all GMOs together? Is there a difference between viral resistant GMOs and pesticide resistant GMOs? This was one topic the Hawai‘i County Council parsed on September 6.
By then they had heard all the new testimony from the public earlier in the week. They were now discussing bills 109 (author Brenda Ford) and 113 (author Margaret Wille), two competing bills that would restrict GMOs on the Big Island. I was back at the Waimea videoconferencing facility, which is also Margaret Wille’s office. This day we were a small group. I hoped people weren’t checking out, just when the real work was starting.
At first it seemed the council was getting derailed on procedural matters. They actually spent 20 minutes deciding how long each council member would get to speak in each round (5 minutes). Was this a stalling technique by opponents of the bills? Despite hours of prior testimony, some council members said they wanted more information and moved to table the bills. Luckily, the council voted that motion down. Most of them were ready to debate and learn within the context of moving the process forward.
Brenda’s bill would stop any new GMO from entering the Big Island, and remove any existing GMO, even the virus-resistant papaya. Margaret’s bill stops new GMO from entering the island. She allows the existing viral-resistant papaya to remain, as well as the pesticide-resistant GMO corn that the Hamakua coast dairy is growing. As she said, “Do we hold in place and have the discussion or do we leave the door open and have the discussion?” She’s about drawing the line, then going to an ad hoc committee to take up specific issues, like the GMO corn on the dairy.
To my surprise, I found merit in the discussion that there may be a big difference between viral-resistant versus pesticide-resistant GMOs. Viral resistant GMOs are those designed to fight a plant disease, such as the GMO papaya. This research was conducted over 8 years and brought a Big Island industry back from the brink of disaster. The painstaking work they did even convinced the picky Japanese government and consumer to allow this GMO produce into their country for sale. GMO papaya farmers actually use less pesticide now than before the introduction of the virus-resistant papaya. The Big Island also has organic papaya farmers, so we’d have to figure out how to allow these two approaches to exist without harming either if we allowed the GMO papaya.
This seems to be very different from the other type of GMO crops, those that can be sprayed with a pesticide and/or herbicide and still survive. These crops are designed to allow for easy bug and weed eradication. It’s this type of GMO crop research that is causing problems on the other Hawaiian Islands. One council member called it predatory farming. An expert called upon to speak this day, talked about the dust people can see coming off the GMO crops in Kauai. That dust stirred by the trade winds is topsoil. The pesticides used on these crops are killing off the microbes which hold the soil together. This is causing massive erosion. In these young lava-built islands, we have precious little topsoil to lose.
After hours of discussion, the council brought Bill109 to a vote and killed it – too extreme. This will be less distracting than keeping two bills in mind as they continue their debate. They also decided to bring in experts to answer their specific questions at the next meeting to discuss Margaret’s bill. I think they are right to want more information on specific topics as long as they do that in the context of reviewing the bill in preparation for a vote.
As for the Hamakua coast dairy farmer, he’s only owned it for two years. He actually lives and dairy farms with GMO corn in Idaho. To him there’s no other way. I heard him on Hawai‘i Public Radio in an interview where he said if he had to stop growing GMO corn here, he’d have to import it to feed his dairy cows. He said that would be too expensive, with the implication that we could lose one of the only two dairy farms on the island. The interviewer didn’t even ask him if he would consider growing non-GMO corn.
Margaret has said, ”We are at a pivotal point in protecting our soil versus spreading GMO crop cultivation. Whichever way we go it will affect us for decades.”
Let’s go the right way, and ban pesticide/herbicide resistant GMOs from the island. Y’all please go to the county council meeting on September 23. Wear green, and eat that tomato instead of throwing it at me.
(For background on the Big Island’s anti-GMO legislation, see these other posts on this blog: The bounty of the Big Island, endangered; The will of the people; Responsibility for the ‘āina is personal; It’s my kuleana to act…again and WOO-HOO…I think.)
If you like my blog, you’ll enjoy my book, Manifesting Paradise, available on Amazon. Receive my posts automatically by filling in your email address in the “follow” box at the top of the right column. And please join my mailing list.