If Monday’s Senate Health Committee Hearing on a bill to require labels on genetically engineered food is any indication, the debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Hawaii’s legislative session this year will be emotional.
That’s not a surprise, at least not to anyone who has been following the passionate debates about pesticides and GMOs in Hawaii counties this past year.
But now that the 2014 legislative session has begun, Hawaii lawmakers are deciding whether the state should have a role in regulating GMO use or even whether to overturn the counties’ new laws.
Monday’s hearing was the first time this session that lawmakers took up the GMO issue. The committee approved the bill, Senate Bill 2736, which would require labeling on all food that has genetically engineered material effective on Jan. 1 next year.
Yet the proposal is unlikely to get much farther. As of Monday afternoon, the bill was assigned to go next to the committees that handle finances and consumer protection, but Sen. Rosalyn Baker told Civil Beat after the hearing that the measure had been re-referred to the Agriculture Committee as well.
“It’s doubtful, I think, with that line-up that the bill would get another hearing, but one never knows,” she said.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Clarence Nishihara has been opposed to labeling genetically modified food, making it unlikely that he would agree to take up the measure.
But SB 2736 is just one of several GMO-related bills that the Legislature is considering this year.
Others would require more disclosure from biotech companies or ban the growing GMO crops in Hawaii altogether. Yet another would override the regulations imposed by counties, and still another would take the issue straight to the voters through a constitutional amendment.
Tensions Running High
Monday’s hearing started out uneventfully. Senate Bill 2736 was considered at the tail end of a long meeting and many attendees had already left by the time the bill came up on the agenda.
Unlike last year’s GMO-related legislative hearings that featured anti-GMO protesters and many hours of emotional testimony, testifiers generally kept their comments brief, with little theatrics.
That is, until several members of the Democratic Party testified on behalf of the party. Sen. Sam Slom, the only Republican in the 25-person state Senate, became so mad that he walked out of the hearing.
“Senator, are you going to be available for voting today?” Health Committee Chairman Josh Green asked Slom as he began to leave.
“I don’t know, let me call the Republican Party and ask them,” he said, walking out the door.
After the hearing, Slom told Civil Beat that he was frustrated by the display of partisanship.
“I don’t think these issues should be subject to partisan politics and political parties,” he said. “If it’s the Democratic Party and there are 24 Democrats [in the Senate], you don’t have to have testimony or anything else.”
Soon after Slom left, Sen. Malama Solomon, a Democrat, also grew upset.
“I don’t really know what’s going on,” she said, expressing confusion that the party had already chosen a side on the issue and saying that she supports labeling only at the federal level.
The senator eventually left the room after getting into a verbal spat with Green and the Democrat who was testifying.
“You’re not part of this hearing,” he said as she left, pointing out that she’s not actually a member of the Health Committee. “You could at least be a respectful human being.”
In the midst of everything, Nishihara quietly got up and left the room.
Eventually the measure passed, after Green and Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland voted in favor of the bill and Sen. Rosalyn Baker voted yes with reservations. Slom and Nishihara were excused.
“There seems to be the expression from the people of Hawaii that they’d like to know what’s in their food,” Green said after approving the bill. “I don’t think it’s more complicated for me than that.”
An Ongoing Debate
But for many Hawaii residents, the issue of genetically modified food is very complicated. More than 100 people submitted testimony regarding Green’s bill on Monday, the vast majority of whom supported labeling.
Much of the testimony came from community organizations and residents who are worried about the health effects of genetically modified food and argue that labeling is an issue of consumer choice.
Supporters pointed out that more than 60 countries require GMO labeling, including Australia, Japan and China, according to data from the Center for Food Safety.
But Hawaii’s Department of Health opposed the bill, saying that the presence of GMOs in food isn’t a health issue.
“Currently, there is no conclusive scientific evidence of negative health effects associated with the consumption of genetically engineered food or food products as determined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration,” said acting Health Director Gary Gill in his written testimony.
He also said the department doesn’t have the resources to enforce the bill.
Representatives from the biotech company Monsanto and organizations representing Hawaii farmers said that GMO labeling is a federal issue and SB 2736 would drive up costs for producers, causing food in Hawaii to be even more expensive than it is now.
Hawaii pays about 40 percent more for food than other states, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But supporters of GMO labeling argue that there are other studies proving the dangers associated with genetically modified organisms.
And Green said he doesn’t buy the argument that labeling would drive up the cost of food. He said biotech companies have changed their tune since last year, when they told him they opposed the bill because it would stigmatize their products.
More GMO-related Bills
The bigger issue this year is expected to be Nishihara’s proposal to amend Hawaii’s “Right to Farm” law in a way that could override the counties’ recently imposed restrictions on biotech companies.
“The right of farmers and ranchers to engage in modern farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this State,” Nishihara’s bill, Senate Bill 3058, says. “No law, ordinance, or resolution of any unit of local government shall be enacted that abridges the right of farmers and ranchers to employ agricultural technology, modern livestock production, and ranching practices not prohibited by federal or state law, rules, or regulations.”
Nishihara told Civil Beat that he hasn’t decided yet when to call a hearing on the bill, which has the backing of ten senators including Senate Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria. The bill has a joint referral with the committees on agriculture, health and public safety.
Nishihara said he’s not sure what other GMO-related bills his committee will consider because he is still reviewing them.
Other bills related to genetically modified food that were introduced in the Senate include Senate Bill 2955 and Senate Bill 2737, both of which would require more disclosure from biotech companies.
One proposal by Sen. Mike Gabbard would allow residents to vote on whether the state constitution should require GMO labeling. The question would have to be posed in the form of a constitutional amendment because Hawaii is one of several states that doesn’t allow citizens’ ballot initiatives.
“Given that we don’t have a referendum/initiative process in Hawaii, a constitutional amendment is the next best thing," Gabbard said via email, adding that the proposal is patterned after referendums in California and Washington. "This bill would be a great way to let the people have a real voice on this important issue.”
The bill, Senate Bill 2177, has been referred jointly to the Health Committee and the Agriculture Committee.
The Senate also has the opportunity to act on House Bill 174, requiring labeling, which passed the House last year and was carried over to this session.
On the House side, House Bill 2187 would create a tax credit for non-genetically modified food. It is co-sponsored by 17 lawmakers including House Majority Leader Scott Saiki and House Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke.
The Political Climate
The debate in the Capitol on Monday mirrors a similar debate that’s been taking place both on the county level and nationally.
In 2013, Kauai County passed a law requiring disclosure of pesticide and GMO use, and the Big Island banned any biotech companies from operating on the island.
The effectiveness of grassroots anti-GMO protests in Hawaii has gained national media attention and spurred biotech giants to sue Kauai County.
The companies are also upping their public relations efforts: Syngenta’s CEO defended GMO crops on HuffPost Live last week and Monsanto launched a new Hawaii marketing campaign on Monday “to improve its relationship with its neighbors.”
Last year, a similar proposal in the Hawaii Legislature to label genetically modified food led to some ugly clashes between supporters and political leaders.
The state House approved the bill but Nishihara said that he wouldn’t consider the proposal. Public pressure forced him to relent and call a hearing, but ultimately the senator decided to approve a study of the issue rather than move forward with the labeling requirement.
Advocates for GMO labeling were also upset that Senate leaders removed Green as the lead chairman considering the bill, instead designating Nishihara, who is more sympathetic to the biotech companies.