Showdown Looms over GMO Taro, Coffee
By Bret Yager
October 7, 2008
County Council to consider bill that would ban some genetically modified crops
A County Council meeting and final vote Wednesday on a ban of genetically engineered taro and coffee promises to be contentious, with people sharpening their messages on both sides of the issue.
The islandwide ban on introducing, testing or growing the genetically modified organisms -- or GMOs -- passed the council 6-3 on Sept. 24, but a second vote must be taken before the legislation can go to the mayor for his signature.
Mayoral candidate and Kona Councilman Angel Pilago authored the bill.
Big Island farmers and Chamber of Commerce representatives stopped by the Tribune-Herald on Monday to explain why the ban is a bad thing for the future of agriculture on the island.
"We shouldn't cut off any avenue to feeding our people," said Barbara Hastings, president of the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce. "We've been told this bill is only about taro and coffee. But it was clear from the last meeting this is the beginning. After this, it will be open to other crops."
The Big Island's signature crops are ripe for destruction by diseases if the science of genetic engineering is not used to head off future calamities, said Tom Greenwell, who grows 50 acres of coffee and manages another 150 acres.
"Diseases like rust and berry borer, when they get to Hawaii, they'll devastate the coffee industry because we don't have the stashes of chemicals they use around the world to fight them," Greenwell said. "We have a crop you can't grow commercially anywhere else because disease would wipe it out."
But supporters of the ban are making arguments that are just as vehement, saying genetically modified crops would lower the value of coffee, irreparably change and pollute seed sources and tamper with the integrity of taro -- a food sacred to some Native Hawaiians.
"They're trying to frame us as anti-science and anti-business, but the science of contamination is quite clear," said Una Greenaway, who grows two acres of organic coffee in South Kona. "If GMO coffee makes it to Kona, we're in big trouble."
Nancy Redfeather, another small coffee grower and board member of Seed Hawaii, said that Kona coffee will lose its certification as a "specialty coffee" if genetically modified strains are allowed to cross-pollinate or replace conventional plants. With that certification will go the premium price the coffee commands, Redfeather said.
Greenaway said genetic engineering -- while often used on inexpensive commodity crops like corn -- doesn't fit with the concept of a specialty product like Kona coffee.
"We have letters from coffee purchasers in Japan saying if we grow GMO, they don't want it," Greenaway said.
That argument doesn't hold water for Greenwell.
"They say Japan won't buy it, Europe won't buy it. I'd say 80 percent of our product is sold in the U.S. anyway," Greenwell said.
Native Hawaiians stand strong against genetically modified taro, said Kale Gumapac, spokesperson for the Kanaka Council, a group that advocates Hawaiian cultural rights.
But Hugh "Buttons" Lovell, a Hawaiian cultural practitioner and taro farmer, said genetically engineered taro could never cross-pollinate with native strains because of the way the plant reproduces from cuttings. Lovell said taro is vulnerable to diseases that have wiped out the crop in other parts of the Pacific, and he questioned the notion that Native Hawaiians present a united front on the topic.
"Taro farmers don't want to come forward because they're afraid of being targeted by environmentalists," Lovell said.
Kanaka Councilman Samuel "Uncle Sam" Kaleleiki said Hawaiians subsisted for generations on taro -- or kalo -- and fish.
"Kalo comes from deep within our culture," said Kaleleiki, who farms both dryland and wetland taro. "We have people who come here from the continent to our island to do all these experiments --- like weapons of mass destruction. People who come here and do experiments like this must first understand the culture they come to."
Lori Farrell, administrator of the Big Island Farm Bureau, said farmers are too busy in the fields to lobby against the ban, and lack the technological savvy to counter what she describes as a special interest campaign "blasting e-mails across the country."
"Mr. Pilago is running for mayor. He's supposed to support all the people, not just special interests," Farrell said. "I don't feel we're getting the dialog with our council."
The council will vote on the final reading of the bill in the Hilo council room on Wednesday. The meeting kicks off at 8:30 a.m.
Hamakua Councilman Dominic Yagong said he is "teetering," trying to do the right thing. His office continues this week to make random calls to Big Island coffee growers to see where they stand on a ban.
"I have no struggle supporting a ban on GMO taro," Yagong said. "The issues is pretty clear with my constituents in Waipio. I do have concerns on the coffee side. The majority say they want a ban, no question. But some are saying they want testing in the lab -- not the field -- just in case something happens down the road. That's a lot different than saying no GMO testing, period."
Yagong said he has asked farmers to submit language revisions if they have suggestions.
"There's a full-court press going on from both sides, and there should be," Yagong said. "It's something people feel very strongly about."