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Hawaii Senate defers GMO food labeling bill

Anita Hofschneider, Associated Press

HONOLULU (AP) -- The agricultural industry has won a victory in the Hawaii Senate.

The Hawaii Senate committees on agriculture, consumer protection and health agreed Thursday to table a proposal that would have required labels on imported genetically modified food.

Sen. Rosalyn Baker, chairwoman of the consumer protection committee, says lawmakers are worried about how labeling might hurt the island's food industry. She says instead of a bill, senators are going to push a resolution to ensure that more research is done about genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Clarence Nishihara says the bill takes a thoughtful approach to an issue that could have wide-ranging impacts.

But the decision was a disappointment for dozens of students, concerned mothers and Native Hawaiians who entreated lawmakers to approve the bill, saying it is an issue of consumer choice.

Nomi Carmona, head of the nonprofit Babes Against Biotech, said after the hearing that she thinks the lawmakers are being influenced by lobbyists from the agricultural industry.

But members of the industry say activists like Carmona are spreading falsehoods and fear.

"Please don't give into the fear mongers and conspiracy theorists," Alan Gotlieb of the Hawaii Cattlemen's Council told senators.

Several employees of Monsanto Co., a major agricultural biotechnology company, testified that genetically modified food isn't harmful. They said that labeling would drive up the cost of food and could endanger people's jobs.

Fred Perlak from Monsanto Hawaii said the bill "is part of a coordinated attack on agriculture."

Many of the anti-GMO advocates on Thursday wanted lawmakers to amend the bill back to its original form.

The original bill required labels for any genetically modified food or agricultural commodity sold in Hawaii. But the House Agriculture Committee amended the proposal to make it only apply to imported food.

Attorney General David Louie told lawmakers last week that the proposal likely violates the U.S. Constitution's provision on interstate commerce. He said the bill may also violate businesses' right to free commercial speech.

Nishihara said he agrees with Louie's opinion and originally didn't plan to give the bill a hearing at all. He said he compromised after meeting with other senators earlier this week who were getting calls from constituents about the issue.

During the meeting, lawmakers debated about which committees should entertain the proposal, if any. Nishihara said he didn't want the health committee involved because he thought the committee wasn't relevant. In the end, the three committees decided to hear the bill together.

Sen. Josh Green, chairman of the Senate Health Committee, supports labeling genetically modified food. He told The Associated Press after the hearing that even though the law won't pass this year, it will happen in the future.

"Even the biotech industry is going to realize over time that the public trust is more important than any of the dissenting views today," Green said.