Guest Column — Am I Allowed To Speak?

By Sen. Russell Ruderman

In a recent editorial, Mr. Richard Ha accused me of conflict of interest because I speak out about GMO issues, claiming I have no right to express my opinion or to vote on such issues because I am in the natural foods business. According to him, my comments about GMOs will unfairly benefit my business. Mr. Ha is incorrect legally, ethically, and logically.

According to the authority on such matters, which includes the Senate President and the Senate attorney’s office, there is no such conflict of interest, legally.  Only if I were to promote a position that benefited my company to the exclusion of others would there be a concern. Actions that might benefit an entire industry are not conflicts of interest. Rules 81 and 85 of the Hawaii State Senate clarify this.

Ethically, there is no conflict in speaking out about issues of any sort, especially those in which I have expertise. Of course a legislator brings his/her background and expertise to the table. This is natural, fair, and it can be no other way. After 35 years in the natural foods business, I feel qualified to speak on natural food, food marketing, and organic issues. I have studied the GMO issue seriously for over 10 years, delving deeply into the science and fictions on both sides of the issue. If anything, the obligation to speak out is greater for a legislator than for a private citizen.

  Logically Mr. Ha has it exactly backwards, which I have explained to him several times. If my advocacy were to somehow be fully successful GMOs would be labeled, as is desired by 90% of the population. When that happens, every consumer will be able to choose safe non-GMO food in every supermarket, and have less need for a natural food store. Today, the biggest driver of organic food’s growth is the desire to avoid GMOs. Labeling GMOs, the goal of my advocacy, will harm my business rather than help it.
   Let’s consider the suggestion that one should not speak on the subjects about which he/she is most knowledgeable. According to this logic, a farmer should not speak about farming issues, which might benefit farmers. An educator should not advocate for education, as it might improve their school. An attorney should not pass laws relating to the legal field, as that might benefit lawyers. In fact, the expertise we bring to discussions and to the legislature is desirable and necessary.
  On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I am encouraged by his words, “Never be afraid to do what’s right, especially when the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”
  No one gives up their right to speak when they get elected to public office, or to vote on issues of all sorts. There are responsibilities that come with the job, which I take seriously. Being silent is not one of them.
Russell Ruderman is the owner of Island Naturals Markets and State Senator from Puna and Ka’u.

24 replies
  1. Kini
    Kini says:

    If anything, the obligation to speak out is greater for a legislator than for a private citizen. – Russell Ruderman

    Speaks volumes of intolerance and hypocrisy.

  2. JT
    JT says:

    Russ Buddy, put your ego back in your pocket.

    Richard has an opinion with lots of background. While you feel you’ve elevated yourself to the position of an authority, you ONLY have an opinion also. At some time in the future, some recorder will make the determination of which of you are correct. Please don’t try to be a G.W. Bush and declare Victory before the war is over!

    The other thing you need to give a bit of thought to is you retail stuff that other’s produce. Without Richard you don’t have anything to sell! I know you feel strongly but keep in mind the wisdom of Harry Chapin in his song ‘Story of a Life’; “it’s hard to see the audience when the spotlights are in your eyes”.

    This reader thinks you’re just far enough into your political career to begin believing your own press. Don’t be a fool and let that be your guiding light! Remember… you have NO ability to see the future!

    Puna Resident JT

  3. Kelly
    Kelly says:

    Thank you Russell for your legislative efforts.
    Labeling GMOs would put the ‘precautionary principle’ in the hands of the consumer. Big ag abhors any impediment to profit, and consumer choice regarding GMO’s is a threat.
    Where can citizens find drafts of your other legislative proposals Russell?

  4. Thomas
    Thomas says:

    My thought was if conflict of interest in our legislators is the issue, please lets start with the elephant in the room.

    Legislators that take campaign money or gifts (in this case) from bio ag and lobbyist (like Richard Ha), present not only a conflict of interest but historically have tended to politically suppress or alienate the communities where these and other toxic industries operate.

    Robert Petricci

  5. Harry samelson
    Harry samelson says:

    Continuing to be a Russell supporter, I still do not see how this response answers the accusation. No one says that you cannot express your opinions about the subject. The issue is whether it is ethical to switch hats back and forth as you wish: Legislator or Businessman. For the time being your public persona is Legislator, so it seems funky to send a note out to a government body on your business letterhead. Say what you want, but as
    a legislator. When you send a business letter to your supplier asking about pricing, do you send it out on Senatorial letterhead?

  6. Julie
    Julie says:

    Richard Ha does not speak for me. I helped to elect Russell for a reason and he speaks for me. I am glad that he is a strong advocate for Puna. That is why we elected him. I want GMO food to be labeled. I don’t want Monsanto to dictate to the Hawaiian Islands. I also don’t want geothermal near existing residential communities. Does this make me bad? Or wrong? According to Richard Ha, it does because I am not supporting the “rubber slipper” folks. Seriously, Richard represents private interests such as IDG NOT the rubber slipper folks like most people, who “have”.

  7. Jen
    Jen says:

    Richard Ha has a right to his opinion, but when he repeatedly accuses the anti-gmo movement as being anti-science, he really shows either his ignorance, or his involvement in the promotion of GE crops. Senator Ruderman, please check out this article on the dissection of Monsanto’s safety studies which do not show safety and in fact show signs of toxicity (yet the FDA accepts such studies to allow their approval):

  8. Fruit Farmer
    Fruit Farmer says:

    There will always be organic and non GMO growers to sell in Russell’s stores. Besides, he’s not saying there shouldn’t be GMO food available for those who want them. He’s saying we should have a choice, and that requires labeling. Those opposed to labeling are obviously looking out for their bottom line. If they have so much confidence in GMO food, they would welcome labeling. Should we not know what we are buying? What’s in it?

  9. rangster
    rangster says:

    That’s quite a mixed bag of seeming clarity. I agree and thoroughly support RR’s position of being allowed to bring his personal knowledge and experience to the fore, and also that there is no pertinent conflict of interest.

    I disagree with RR’s stance that associates “safe” with “non-gmo” (every consumer will be able to choose safe non-GMO food in every supermarket). This is crunchy fear-mongering at it’s finest.

    RR thinks he knows what’s what: “I have studied the GMO issue seriously for over 10 years, delving deeply into the science and fictions on both sides of the issue.” The sad thing is, the “science” against GMO’s is akin to the “science” of the climate change deniers: lots of theory Quixotically opposing the facts at hand. There’s so much safety testing going on for consumer products nowadays, it’s a wonder businesses can get anything new to market.

    Nonetheless our legislators are paying more attention to the issue, one that just happens to be at the forefront of academic research and exploration. Stem cell research moratorium, anyone? Idiots.

    Meanwhile, our nation decays and our world domination
    through weaponry continues, unchecked. Ah, the lifestyle of the 1% sure is sweet.

  10. tia
    tia says:

    The true culprits engaging in conflict of interest, are those promoting GMO’s for biofuel for the military industrial complex, falsely promoting it as ‘energy’ generation for the ‘rubbah slippah folks’. We are NOT stupid. We will not sell out our aina nor our kekeis to fatten your pockets. The People have spoken. We will rid our homes of toxic chemicals and frankenfoods. Imua!

  11. tia
    tia says:

    R. Petricci,
    Can you site R. Ha’s “campaign money or gifts (in this case) from bio ag and lobbyist (like Richard Ha)” All this time I thought he’s ignorant, but didn’t know he’s been bought by BIG AG, which explains it all.

  12. Russell Ruderman
    Russell Ruderman says:

    Thank you all who support my position. Kelly – I will have a summary of proposed bills ready on my website in a few days. An as-yet incomplete list is available here, for my Local Food Caucus bills (, and here for the others

    Harry raises a legitimate question which deserves an answer, regarding my testimony to County Council on Island Naturals letterhead a few months ago. There is nothing wrong with me from testifying to the County on behalf of my business. I did make a rookie mistake on that letter, which was to include the words “state senator.” That was an error, made exactly once, for which I apologize again. I need to testify as one or the other, not both.

    Rangster comparing GMO opponents to climate change deniers is absurd, and exactly the opposite of reality. The rest of the world recognizes the dangers of man-made climate change, and laughs at the U.S. for harboring the remaining skeptics. The same is true for the dangers of GMOs.

  13. Jen
    Jen says:

    Rangster, wake up. You’ve been duped by the industry. The “science” showing supposed safety of GE foods is weak, incomplete, and often shows signs of toxicity.

    Dear Food and Chemical Toxicology. Shouldn’t You Retract Hammond’s (Monsanto’s) GMO Study?

    New study reveals molecular differences between transgenic and conventional maize

    POR UM BRASIL ECOLÓGICO, LIVRE DE TRANSGÊNICOS & AGROTÓXICOS [For an Ecological Brazil, Free from GMOs and Pesticides], 17 Jan 2014

    The study’s major contribution is to challenge the main (pseudoscientific) concept used to justify the release of GMOs: so-called ” substantial equivalence”. According to this theory, transgenic plants are equivalent in their chemical composition to conventional plants and thus, in principle, do not pose risks. The concept was created by the U.S. government agency responsible for regulating food and drugs (FDA – Food and Drug Administration) after a former Monsanto attorney took the position of “deputy commissioner for policy” (a sort of policy adviser), a post specially created for him. The method is rather vague and does not specify the level of similarity between the chemical composition of plants that allow them to be considered “equivalent”, but it still secured the release of GMOs in the USA and other countries and is still used today (including by CTNBio – National Technical Biosafety Commission) to justify not carrying out in-depth studies to assess risks of the new plants.

    Supreme Court denies US farmers protection against Monsanto:

    The US Supreme Court has denied organic and GMO-free farmers their day in Court against Monsanto – leaving them unable to challenge the company’s patents or seek redress for GMO seed contamination.

    America’s farmers have been denied justice, while Monsanto’s reign of intimidation is allowed to continue in rural America.

    The US Supreme Court has issued a decision in the landmark federal lawsuit, Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association et al v. Monsanto.

    Farmers were denied the right to argue their case in court and gain protection from potential abuse by the agrichemical and genetic engineering giant, Monsanto.

    The decision also dashes the hopes of family farmers who sought the opportunity to prove in court that Monsanto’s genetically engineered seed patents are invalid.

    Monsanto cannot sue if crop contamination is less than 1% (BUT THEY CAN IF IT’S ABOVE)

  14. rangster
    rangster says:

    @Jen: I would be very pleased to see reports of real health issues connected to consumption of marketed GMO’s. I kinda think there aren’t any…yet. That’s why I can compare climate change deniers to GMO alarmists. Who is duped are consumers who believe only non-gmo food products are “safe”.

    I was vegan for awhile, and have been supporting and consuming organic produce for over 20 years. In general, I like it better, and feel pleased to be supporting farming techniques that eschew the old chemical fertilizers, weeds and pests control.

    For the record, I am not a fan of large corporate (or political) structures, nor the ‘rights’ of companies to influence politics. If there are genuine issues of harm or ill health involving the consumption of one kind of GMO or another, I strongly believe we will get evidence of it sooner or later. Afterall, sometimes the Chicken-Little’s of the world must be right! Meanwhile, it is impossible to try to ban all GMO activity, as that horse left the barn a generation ago.

    And as I said above, I support RR’s speaking out on the subject, but I do also think he is the one person who should not be introducing legislation on product labeling, because it does directly affect his business operations. Even his own stores post the interesting dodge on the doors touting they will not knowingly add any “new” products to the store that contain GMO’s: apparently they are in products too numerous to label or remove from inventory? Or do the Island Natural suppliers not wish to have their products slapped with the label of fear?

  15. tia
    tia says:

    “If there are genuine issues of harm or ill health involving the consumption of one kind of GMO or another, I strongly believe we will get evidence of it sooner or later.”

    If later, what then? The genie is already out of the bottle. Try to undo the massive Fukushima radiation contamination in the ocean. Wonder why there are no studies done on the health effects of GMO? UNITED STATES CODE, Title 28, section 3002

  16. Jen
    Jen says:

    Rangster you read like a Mark Lynas character industry PT stunt. “I’m vegan and eat organic, but anti GMO is equal to climate change denial.” The two issues are not comparable and its the latest favorite of industry propaganda to spout this statement. If you are not a troll please go to my previous comment and read the linked articles and educate yourself.

  17. Hugh Clark
    Hugh Clark says:

    Appears legislators are “speaking out” and saying no way, Jose. Thirty six of 51 House members cosponsored a bill to make Kauai and Big Island actions null and void. (That’s a 10-vote cushion beyond the bare majority needed for passage.)

    Maybe they will save Hawaii County a chunk of litigation costs.

  18. sada anand kaur
    sada anand kaur says:

    We, the electorate, will remember each name of these corporate-owned respresentatives. We can not & will not tolerate their arrogance in representing corporate interests over their constituents’s health & safety.
    Vigilance & testimonies are critical in defeating this blatant disrespect of our state’s citizens by elected civil servants.
    Organize your neighbors, friends & relatives to counter this outrageous disregard of our interests.
    Teach others how to access & track this legislation, until it’s demise.

  19. NeighborWatch
    NeighborWatch says:

    So Sad, the ill informed, anyone who needs to know more about the side effect of GMO pretend food need only Google that.
    I watched Dennis “Fresh?” Onishi on a video giving his testimony about how he was not for labeling GMO junk all the while holding a Gatorade in his hand. He says should we have a label on this because it has some GMO ingredients?
    Because if one has a choice and they KNOW better they’ll choose REAL food and not Frankenfoods.
    But it must be so, you really want to see the side effect? Listen to those who still eat the stuff, they sound backed up. Must be those Puff Cheese Balls.

  20. sada anand kaur
    sada anand kaur says:

    Tragically, all of us & our families, both anti & pro-GMO factions, will suffer consequences of reckless use of GMOs & their attending pesticides.
    We must all do what we can to stop this insanity.
    Our collective health is our responsibility.

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