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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 10, 2006

Bill would regulate biocrop testing here

By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

Lawmakers yesterday advanced a bill that would require state health officials to regulate the testing of genetically modified crops in Hawai'i.

House Bill 3218 would require the Department of Health to certify that such tests pose no health or environmental risk before allowing them to be conducted locally.

Hawai'i, which is one of the top locations nationwide for genetically modified crop research, has become a focal point in the debate about the risks and value of such work. Friction between environmentalists and other concerned groups and the biotech industry has surfaced in response to tests on genetically modified taro, and over plans by a Big Island business to use algae for trial production of pharmaceutical drugs.

More that 75 written testimonies were submitted on the measure with most favoring the bill, which was passed by the Committee on Energy & Environmental Protection.

Proponents of the bill contend that current federal regulations governing field trials of genetically modified organisms are not stringent enough to ensure public safety. Current laws also often conceal the location of such tests from the public. Among those opposing the bill were the University of Hawai'i, the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center, the state Department of Health and the state Department of Agriculture. They said state regulations would be a significant burden that would drive businesses to conduct valuable research elsewhere.

The bill now goes to the Economic Development & Business Concerns Committee and the Agriculture Committee. Historically, Hawai'i is among most active states when it comes to introducing state legislation covering the complex and controversial industry. However, in recent years, state lawmakers have declined to regulate the testing of genetically modified crops.

State Rep. Hermina Morita, D-14th (Kapa'a, Hanalei), who is chairwoman of the House Energy & Environmental Protection Committee, said the prospects for the bill in its current form are not bright.

"It really is an uphill battle," she said.

However, she said, she hopes lawmakers will agree on a measure that would make the location of field tests and sale of genetically modified food more public.

"I think there's a legitimate concern about disclosure and labeling," Morita said. "I think at risk is the overall marketing potential for (Hawai'i as) being clean and natural."

Reach Sean Hao at shao@honoluluadvertiser.com.