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A councillor’s lonely fight for genetically modified crops

Greggor Ilagan was the only one in Hawaii’s Kona County Council to say no to ban.

January 12, 2014 11:57:29 pm

From the moment the Bill to ban genetically engineered crops on the island of Hawaii was introduced in May, it garnered more vocal support than any the County Council in Kona, Hawaii, had ever considered, even the perennially popular bids to decriminalise marijuana.

Public hearings were dominated by recitations of the ills often attributed to genetically modified organisms, or GMOs: cancer in rats, a rise in childhood allergies, out-of-control superweeds, genetic contamination, overuse of pesticides, disappearance of butterflies and bees.

Like some others on the nine-member council, Greggor Ilagan was not sure at the outset of the debate exactly what genetically modified organisms were: living things whose DNA has been altered, often with the addition of a gene from a distant species, to produce a desired trait. But he could see why almost all of his colleagues had been persuaded of the virtue of turning the island into what the Bill’s proponents called a “GMO-free oasis”.

“You just type ‘GMO’ and everything you see is negative,” he told his staff. Opposing the ban seemed likely to ruin anyone’s re-election prospects. Yet doubts nagged at the councilman, who was serving his first two-year term. The island’s papaya farmers said an engineered variety had saved their fruit from a devastating disease. A study purporting that a diet of GMO corn caused tumours 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.
“Are we going to just ignore them?” Ilagan wondered.

Urged on by Margaret Wille, the ban’s sponsor, who spoke passionately of the need to “act before it’s too late,” the council declined to form a task force to look into such questions before its November vote. But Ilagan, 27, sought answers on his own. In the process, he found himself wrestling with a subject in which popular beliefs often do not reflect scientific evidence.

At stake is how to grow healthful food most efficiently, at a time when a warming world and a growing population make that goal all the more urgent.

With the GMO Bill, Ilagan often despaired of assembling the information he needed to definitively decide. Every time he answered one question, it seemed, new ones arose. Popular opinion masqueraded convincingly as science, and the science itself was hard to grasp. People who spoke as experts lacked credentials, and GMO critics discounted those with credentials as being pawns of biotechnology companies.

So many emails arrived in support of the ban that, as a matter of environmental responsibility, council clerks suspended the custom of printing them for council members. College students, eco-conscious shoppers and talk show celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Dr Oz and Bill Maher warned against consuming food made with genetically modified ingredients.

As Wille’s Bill was debated here throughout 2013, activists elsewhere collected 354,000 signatures for a petition asserting that GMOs endanger public health. The legislation is backed by the growing organic food industry.

As he traversed the island and the Internet, Ilagan agreed with constituents that there was good reason to suspect that companies like Monsanto would place profit above public safety. He, too, wished for more healthful food to be grown more sustainably. But even a national ban on such crops, it seemed to him, would do little to solve the problems of an industrial food system that existed long before their invention. Nor was it likely to diminish the market power of the “Big Ag” companies, which also dominate sales of seeds that are not genetically modified, and the pesticides used on both.

With one member absent, only one other council member joined Ilagan in opposing the Bill. The response to Ilagan’s vote was swift and unambiguous. He was mocked on Facebook and pilloried in letters from constituents.

The council meeting on October 15 started with public testimony that lasted seven hours.

Ilagan found himself touched by the emotion of the crowd. Those in favour of the Bill outnumbered those opposed by more than five to one.

Knowing that the final vote on the ban was yet to come, Ilagan voted “no” after the hearing. Then 1,000 people quickly signed a petition demanding that he change his vote at the final hearing, scheduled for November 18. The ban was approved, 6-3. The mayor signed the Bill December 5.

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