Pros, cons of bio-food debated before council

Kaua’i County Council members have heard opposing and supporting testimony on a proposed resolution calling for labeling for genetically modified food.

Addressing the council committee of the whole at a meeting at the Historic County Building Wednesday, supporters contended labeling will allow consumers to know what is in the foods they may buy and consume.

But others supporting labeling such products took the argument further, condemning the bio-tech industry outright.

They contended the process hasn’t been shown to be safe, opens the way for health hazards, and could wreck Kaua’i’s ecosystem.

But representatives from the Sygenta and Pioneer, which grow corn, sunflower and soybeans, and others said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has concluded labeling is not scientifically nor legally warranted.

They also said similar legislation in Oregon failed recently and that genetically modified crops are safe for people, animals and the environment.

The Kaua’i measure was prompted in part by recent inquires by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency into whether agricultural biotechnology practices on Kaua’i met federal requirements.

Kouchi, who drew praise from audience members for introducing the measure, also noted that while the industry has helped buoyed Kaua’i’s economy, residents have shown a “significant interest” in being kept informed about the benefits and potential risks to their health from genetically modified foods.

The resolution, which has no legal teeth, asks the Food and Drug Administration to develop voluntary guidelines to label genetically engineered foods.

Some of the 20 audience members, including organic farm growers, proposed a workshop be held on the labeling issue.

Kaua’i resident Ellen Schwartz said she “strongly” supported the resolution because “we are entering into a different world, with genetically designed foods.”

“We are talking about irretrievably altering not only the ecosystem, upon which we depend for life, but human health,” she said.

In urging labeling, she contended insurance companies will not give liability insurance to corporations that grow such crops.

“If insurance companies won’t risk their money, is it good for us to risk our lives, our children’s future, and the planet itself on these crops which are for the most part untested.”

Schwartz said it was inconceivable to her to “allow engineered foods to forward without labeling.”

Noli Hoye contended between 88 and 95 percent of consumers support labeling for genetically engineered foods. Doing so would allow consumers to make “educated decisions on what we eat,” Hoye said.

She asked the council to work with the bio-tech companies to obtain more information on the location of crops, tests that are used and whether restrictions will be imposed on properties located near the sites used for growing genetically engineered crops. She also asked for maps of the plots.

Rosa Silva, who said she has done research on the generically engineered crops and the industry for the past eight months, thanked Kouchi for proposing the resolution, but moved away for the subject of labeling.

Instead she talked mostly about her fears of the bio-tech industry.

She said recent articles in the Washington Post and New York Times pointed to land in Iowa that was initially used to grow corn for pharmaceutical products. Eventually, that crop was replaced by a soybean crop.

However, some of the corn continued to grow and mixed with the soybean crop, creating a “2.7 million catastrophe, Silva said.

“Where we aren’t using crops to eat any more, we are using the crops to make medicine … Is that what we want for Hawai’i,” she asked?

With expansion of the industry, the day may not be too far off when parts of the landscape in Hawai’i become a “moonscape,” warned Kaua’i farmer Marie Mauger. She said Hawai’i farmers should follow safe, traditional farming practices used in China that have allowed some fields in that nation to be used for 20 centuries.

Hawaiian sovereignty advocate, Nani Rogers and Cheryl Lovell Obatake, representing the Nawiliwili Watershed Council, said labeling is needed to protect the “aina” and water and taro resources.

Obatake said because efforts against labeling have been heavily funded in Oregon, she is considering seeking out international support to monitor any labeling project for Kaua’i.

G. Douglas Tiffany, a representative for Pioneer, said that the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association opposes the labeling of genetically engineered food.

The association is comprised of eight companies that farm about 8,000 acres statewide and employs about 1,000 full-time, part-time and seasonal employees.

Tiffany said legislation calling for labeling of genetically engineered foods in Oregon failed and suggested the proposed legislation might not work on Kaua’i either.

During an election in Oregon this month, voters voted down a measure requiring labeling of food and foods additives that were produced using genetically modified engineering practices, Tiffany said.

Voters there recognized approval of that measure would have increased their foods bills by $500 a year, Tiffany said.

Also, if the measure had passed, Oregon would have spent an estimated $118 million over ten years to create a “regulatory framework” and enforcement regimes.

The FDA, Tiffany also testified, also has concluded that labeling is not scientifically or legally required, he said.

Approval of that measure also would have interfered with the ability of manufacturers of such crops to market their products nationwide and would have impeded the “free flow of commerce between states,” Tiffany said.

Kevin McMahon of Syngenta said that the company consistently adheres to legislation governing labeling, adding “all the seeds are labeled accordingly, allowing for labeling down the food chain, as required by law or by consumer demand.”

McMahon said his company wants to work with “the food supply chain” and local regulators to provide meaningful information about its services.

Labeling of genetically engineered products could work well for his company and others, as it could be a way to tell consumers they are buying a “quality product,” McMahon said after the meeting.

McMahon said, however, he and other seed growing companies on Kaua’i weren’t give proper notice for the meeting on the resolution.

Kouchi said more than month ago, he gave public statements that the council would discuss the matter, and that he had instructed staffers with the council to contact the companies.

“If we failed in getting you that notice, then the only thing I have left to say to you is that I am very, very sorry, because we have been talking about having this well in advance,” Kouchi said.

Rogers said neither the council nor the county should be blamed in this case, as “they (bio-tech) companies) have been the ones that have been guilty, hiding back information from the community.”

Meanwhile, Kauai Farm Bureau representative Roy Oyama also voiced opposition to labeling the products.

Labeling would curb the expansion of the industry and “extension of Hawai’i’s agriculture,” Oyama said.

He also said the Hawai’i Farm Bureau Federation will not support “special labeling” without scientific information approved by the FDA, USDA, EPA and the state Department of Agriculture.

During other testimony, a man supporting the biotech industry said contrary to the perception by some audience members, the industry is “tightly regulated by the USDA., the EPA, and the FDA,” he said.

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