Making front page news, the New York Times on January 4, 2014 ran an in-depth and well-researched piece by Amy Harmon on the long-running legislative battle in Hawaii over genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The article titled “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops,” details how Councilman Greggor Ilagan saw beyond the false unscientific claims of the anti-GMO activists and voted against a ban on cultivation of GMOs.
Harmon describes Ilagan’s tireless efforts to separate fact from fiction in this emotion-filled debate:
“Doubts nagged at the councilman, who was serving his first two-year term. The island’s papaya farmers said that an engineered variety had saved their fruit from a devastating disease.
“A study reporting that a diet of G.M.O. corn caused tumors in rats, mentioned often by the ban’s supporters, turned out to have been thoroughly debunked.
“And University of Hawaii biologists urged the Council to consider the global scientific consensus, which holds that existing genetically engineered crops are no riskier than others, and have provided some tangible benefits. ‘Are we going to just ignore them?’ Mr. Ilagan wondered.”
The article also explains how testimony from scientific experts was quashed while non-credentialed witnesses were given more say. Harmon describes how, at the September 23 hearing, Ilagan had grown increasingly uneasy as his fellow Council members declined to call several University of Hawaii scientists who had flown from Oahu, “instead allotting 45 minutes to Jeffrey Smith, a self-styled expert on G.M.O.s with no scientific credentials.”
Many University of Hawaii scientists had already registered their opposition to the bill, in written and oral testimony and letters in the local papers.
If the ban passed, local farmers could not take advantage of projects underway at the university and elsewhere, they noted, including drought-tolerant crops and higher-yield pineapple plants. Genetic engineering is a precise technique that “itself is not harmful,” the dean of the school’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, Maria Gallo, wrote in one op-ed.
But Margaret Wille, the ban’s sponsor, had largely dismissed the opinions of university researchers, citing Monsanto contributions to the university.
“It is sad that our state has allowed our university departments of agriculture to become largely dependent upon funding grants from the multinational chemical corporations,” Ms. Wille told reporters, suggesting that the university’s professors were largely a “mouthpiece for the G.M.O. biotech industry.”
With one member absent, only one other Council member joined Mr. Ilagan in opposing the bill. The Council deferred a decision on creating a task force to discuss the implications of banning genetically modified organisms. Ms. Wille assured her colleagues that, upon the bill’s passage, she would support the formation of such a group. But it was better not to delay, she said: “I want to draw a line in the sand until we can take a closer look.”
At the Council meeting on December 17, Ms. Wille’s motion to create a committee to study the impact of banning genetically modified organisms on the island was not seconded, and she withdrew it. Stunned, Mr. Ilagan briefly considered making his own motion to form a task force. But he could see he would not have enough support.
Ultimately, Ilagan says he had learned a lot about health and environmental aspects of genetic engineering, but it was difficult to have any reasonable conversations about the facts.
“Popular opinion masqueraded convincingly as science, and the science itself was hard to grasp. People who spoke as experts lacked credentials, and G.M.O. critics discounted those with credentials as being pawns of biotechnology companies.
“It takes so much time to find out what’s true.”