Thursday, March 28, 2013

Opinion Editorial

Representative Wooley (Kaneohe, Heeia, Ahuimanu, Kahaluu, Haiku Valley, Mokeoloe)
serves as the Chair of the House Committee on Agriculture

Legal worries about GMO labeling law can be overcome

As elected officials, our duty is to pay heed to the will of the people and to do our best to pass laws that serve the public interest.

For the past several years, the people of the state of Hawaii have spoken loud and clear. Before they put food on their table to feed their families, they want to know if it is genetically engineered.

The reasons why people want to know if their food is genetically modified are both varied and deeply held. Some are concerned about potential adverse health effects, including food allergies and sensitivities, immune response and chronic impairments. Some question the ethics of manipulating the building blocks of life. Some object to the environmental effects of growing genetically engineered crops, including increased herbicide use, development of herbicide-resistant weeds and consequent use of more toxic chemicals, and degradation of endangered species' habitat. Some are concerned about risks to food security. Some have cultural concerns, particularly with respect to the genetic modification of taro.

House Bill 174 responds to the people's legitimate and entirely understandable desire to make informed choices about the food they eat and serve to their keiki and kupuna. The measure's purpose is to require, beginning Jan. 1, 2014, the labeling of any produce sold in the state of Hawaii that contains or was derived from genetically engineered material. The bill received support throughout the legislative process, passing out of the state House committees on agriculture, consumer protection and commerce, and finance. It then won approval in the full House by a 50-1 vote.

The state attorney general has expressed some concerns about the bill, specifically that a court might find it preempted by federal labeling laws or might conclude that the current version of the bill discriminates against out-of-state farmers. I have spoken with the attorney general's office about these concerns and am confident that they can be addressed. Federal labeling laws do not prohibit the state from requiring food producers to provide accurate, factual information about the food that is sold to Hawaii consumers.

For example, no one has ever suggested that the Legislature overstepped its authority in passing laws regulating the labeling of coffee and other products as "Made in Hawaii." HB 174 does nothing more than require similarly accurate information, in this case about whether produce is genetically modified.

Concerns about treating out-of-state farmers equally can easily be addressed by modifying the bill to require labeling of all genetically engineered produce, whether grown locally or imported. The only local food crop that would be affected is the rainbow papaya, which local farmers are already labeling for export to Japan. Thus, it would not impose any undue burden to ask that papayas sold locally be labeled as well.

It is well within the Legislature's power to pass a labeling law that responds to the will of Hawaii's people, without violating federal law. I look forward to working with the community and my colleagues in the Legislature to move forward with labeling of genetically modified food in our state.
This opinion editorial was published in the Star-Advertiser on Monday, March 25, 2013

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