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What the Experts Told the Maui County Council about the GMO Moratorium

The US District Court of Hawaii today invalidated the Maui County bill passed last November that would ban cultivation of genetically engineered crops. It is the third straight loss in federal court for county bills in Hawaii aimed at closing the biotech seed industry, following judgements against Kauai County and Hawaii County. While advertised as a moratorium, the Maui County bill called for extensive studies of GE crops and pesticides which would have been an effective ban on GE crops, with the goal of forcing the closure of Monsanto’s and Agrigenetic’s corn breeding farms. Biotech corn seed multiplication is one of the major agricultural enterprises on Maui and by far the largest on the island of Molokai. Statewide, the biotech seed industry is the largest agricultural commodity based on value.

Three federal agencies regulate GE crops

The ruling based on preemption by federal and state regulations was not a surprise. There are several agencies already regulating GE crops as well as pesticide use. The initiative document and its proponents dismissed them as inadequate and called for the additional county scrutiny through a moratorium on the GE crops until the studies could be conducted. The initiative also ignored the voluminous safety studies already conducted by many independent scientists and organizations around the world. If they had considered those studies there would have been no justification for the initiative, as the resounding consensus is that crops bred with genetic engineering techniques produce foods as safe as any other breeding method, and offers benefits of disease resistance, and use of less insecticides and safer herbicides.

GE crop production in Hawaii must comply with regulations of the USDA's Biotechnology Regulatory Service

The Maui County Council conducted hearings on the initiative prior to the vote, and in the discovery phase invited input from resource experts including the US Environmental Protection Agency, Hawaii Department of Health, Hawaii Department of Agriculture, and USDA APHIS Biotechnology Regulatory Services (agencies involved in GE crop and pesticide regulation) and from Dr. DeWolfe Miller, Epidemiologist with the University of Hawaii’s John Burns School of Medicine. Together, they testified to the safety and ongoing regulation of GE crops and pesticides in Maui County. They also had misgivings about the initiative and disagreed with several of its ‘findings.’ Their full comments are educational, and below I have selected a few that most succinctly counter several of the erroneous assertions in the initiative. These quotes are from the full minutes of Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee meetings of July 1st 2014 and July 24th 2014:

“Well, I’ve read this (GMO Moratorium bill), and I’ve read it three times, and I find it to be wanting in the worst way. It’s the premises that they build the argument for a moratorium are fallacious. . . You know, any additional regulatory effort on pesticides or on GE crops needs to be driven by science and this is not driven by science.”
“Open air testing of pesticides isn’t happening on Maui. Although, you know, there’s plenty of people that will give voice to the fact that it is. It’s, you know, it’s selling fear essentially, but that’s not happening.”
“GM crops are released to come for field trials before it comes to Hawaii. So there’s no real experimentation happening here. That’s done on the mainland, and it’s released for field trials, and we have field trials here.”
“Science always has dissenting views, it’s the nature of science. You always want to look at the preponderance of evidence to see where the strongest voice for science is.”
“And, you know, we’re not having a problem with the large, and they’re not really large by mainland standards, biotech companies. They’re doing an excellent job of applying their pesticides.”       Scott Enright, Chairperson, Hawaii Department of Agriculture

“And then, just to give you an idea, like last fiscal year, I did over a thousand inspections on fields, over a thousand fields I inspected. There’s no violations on their part on our side. So they’re, I mean, and since I started this job in about 2008, there has never been any violations I had working with the seed companies and they’re always more than willing to give me whatever information I need and whatever, if I have any questions, they’re always there to answer.”
Todd Suda, Biotechnology Specialist, Plant Quarantine Branch, Hawaii Department of Agriculture

“The question is raised about public safety and the Department of Health does not feel that consuming genetically modified food products is a significant threat to public health. So we do not regulate GMO materials in food and we don’t intend to.”
Gary Gill, Deputy Director for Environmental Health, Hawaii Department of Health

“We look at them very carefully to make sure that we have adequate scientific information to evaluate the potential effects on human health and the environment and only approve the introduction of those genetically engineered plants into the environment if we conclude that they are not going to cause unreasonable adverse effects on the environment.”
“As I said earlier, to the extent that EPA has jurisdiction over genetically engineered plants, we would not allow those products into the environment unless we were convinced that they were safe for people to eat, and in response to one of the earlier questions about the rainbow papayas, we’ve not seen any instance of issues with consumption of that commodity.”
“Regarding safety of Glyphosate; we have come to the conclusion that as far as herbicides go, this is one of the safer products and as authorized for use by EPA, it does not cause any unreasonable risks to people or to the environment.”
“Finally, in many cases, we have required buffer restrictions around, between the application site and vulnerable areas such as places that people live, or schools, or playgrounds, or parks, or water resources, and so forth. All of those decisions are based on very thoroughly conducted scientific studies that enable us to quantify the amount of drift and the impact that that drift will have.”
William Jordan, Deputy Director for Programs, Office of Pesticides Programs, US EPA

“First of all, it was the finding of the Federal government and the coordinated framework that the safety risks of genetically engineered organisms are not fundamentally different from safety risks posed by non-genetically engineered organisms with similar traits. And what that says, is that the act of genetic engineering is not known to introduce new or different kinds of risks. Secondly, regulation of genetically engineered organisms should be science based and conducted on a case-by-case basis. And thirdly, that existing laws provide adequate authority to provide oversight of genetically engineered organisms.”
Michael J. Firko, Ph.D., Deputy Administrator, Biotechnology Regulatory Services, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, United States Department of Agriculture

“So if, if I take that as it is, as it stands, and I were going to do that as an epidemiologic study, as an investigation, I would have to prepare considerable more detail than what’s in the initiative, because it’s just simply too vague to embark on some kind of epidemiological investigation of these exposures, a great deal more, okay. . . I mean, I wouldn’t recommend it because it would, it would take such huge resources to investigate something that obviously has questions about how exposure occurs, and what particular health outcome you’re really interested in, and would be there, a sufficient number of these events to even have a study that would be sufficient to identify these health events in individuals that I wouldn’t even recommend doing it in Maui, for example, do it somewhere else because Maui simply is too small a population.”
“And eliminating jobs, we all know, has a huge impact on an individual who gets their job eliminated. It’s not good for their well-being. It’s not good for their health and that affects other people around them like their family. In fact, this ripples right through the community. And, oh, we’re talking about Molokai.”
“I have a lot of experience in this and I just, I was appalled by the audacity that they would actually take away people’s jobs in order to do a study that was ill-defined at best, and almost impossible to do even if you had all the resources that you would need to do it, and all the time.”
COUNCILMEMBER VICTORINO: “. . . what you’re saying that you think this initiative, if I was to paraphrase it, is very unreasonable at best.”
MR. MILLER: “Well, unreasonable would be an upgrade from unethical.”
Dr. DeWolfe Miller, Epidemiologist, University of Hawaii, John Burns School of Medicine.

Any reasoned skepticism opposing this consensus of safety and regulation must also be based on evidence in order to have an informed discussion and to support the justification for the bill. Instead, moratorium proponents offered precautionary principle-induced hallucinations about wide ranging threats (see the previous post). Untethered by evidence and denying the existence of effective regulation, their lively campaign was delivered as social theater complete with drama, villains, costumes and celebrity clowns from the mainland. In the end, the moratorium bill did not survive its confrontation with reality in federal court.

The benefits of GE crops in Maui County are disease free papaya, corn seed breeding farms and employment.

We can progress as a society by understanding more, not by becoming more afraid. The passion of many of the bill’s supporters for personal and environmental safety needs to be informed by the best information available, not exploited by those with other agendas. Educational resources about agricultural biotechnology and pesticides based on science and evidence are plentiful, including these: Genetic Literacy Project, Biofortified, CTAHR’s Biotech in Focus, Applied Mythology, Illumination, GMO Pundit, Sense About Science and US EPA’s Ag101.

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