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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, May 26, 2005

Legislators focused on ag biotech

By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

It's no secret that Hawai'i leads the nation in open-air test sites of genetically engineered crops. However, Hawai'i also is the most active state when it comes to introducing state legislation covering the complex and controversial industry.

During the 2003-04 session, Hawai'i was a hotbed of legislative activity accounting for 22 percent of the 170 agriculture biotechnology bills introduced nationwide, according to a report released yesterday by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.

The two bills that passed the Hawai'i Legislature accounted for 5 percent of the agriculture biotech bills passed nationwide during the period.

The high level of interest in regulating genetic crop research comes during a period of increased public concern that genetically modified organisms could contaminate food crops, harm endangered species and soil the state's reputation as an environmentally conscious community, which is important to a strong tourism trade.

The biotech industry maintains that any risks posed by biotech crops to humans and the environment are minimal. However, concerns about such research surfaced this week in vocal opposition to a discontinued University of Hawai'i project involving genetically engineered Hawaiian taro. Public concern also caused a state board to turn down a permit needed by a Big Island company to grow drugs in genetically altered algae.

Many states are grappling with issues surrounding the industry's growth. However, Hawai'i's geographic isolation, fertile volcanic soil and year-round growing season have made the state the most popular location nationwide for open-air test sites of genetically modified crops.

"The high volume of legislation in Hawai'i, and the widely different focus of these bills, reveal that legislators are trying to walk a difficult tightrope which will allow them to simultaneously address both the perceived risks and benefits commonly associated with agricultural biotechnology," said Mi-

chael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology in a written statement.

The legislation introduced in Hawai'i reflects a range of concerns:

• Three resolutions and two bills tried to protect Hawaiian rights to natural resources discovered through bioprospecting — scientific research aimed at finding useful and profitable products in nature.

• One bill would have imposed a moratorium on the production of genetically modified Kona coffee plants.

• Three bills tried to require that information about field trials going on in Hawai'i be made available to the public. Companies operating in Hawai'i are allowed to keep confidential the details about the type of genetically modified crop research conducted, and its location.

• Three bills tried to require producers of genetically modified crops to notify neighboring farmers of the presence of such crops.

The two bills that did pass during the 2003-04 session dealt with biotech workforce development issues.

That marked the second-straight time Hawai'i led the nation in introducing legislative proposals related to the biotech crop industry. Activity so far would indicate that Hawai'i could continue that trend. This year at least 23 agriculture biotech measures were introduced in the Legislature, with the passage of two resolutions supporting the formation of discussion groups on biotech.

The key to settling issues concerning agriculture biotechnology is to find a balance between stewardship of Hawai'i's environment and culture with science and innovation and ultimately jobs, said Lisa Gibson, president for the Hawaii Life Sciences Council, which is focused on growing the state's life-sciences industry.

"It's a complex topic. We have a lot to learn," she said. "The important thing is to have an open forum for that debate so we can make the best decisions long-term for our community."

Reach Sean Hao at shao@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8093.