The battle in Hawaii against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and restrictions on the farming of GMO crops took an interesting turn this week when a federal judge agreed to allow the Center for Food Safety, Earthjustice and several other organizations to join in on a lawsuit to defend Kauai County’s restrictions on genetically modified farming.
Syngenta and other seed corporations are suing Kauai County over Ordinance 960, formerly Bill 2491, which requires the companies to disclose certain details about their use of pesticides and genetically modified organisms, as well as adhere to pesticide buffer zones around homes, roads, parks and other areas.
Judge Barry Kurren ruled Monday that the Center for Food Safety, Surfrider Foundation, Pesticide Action Network North America and Ka Makani Hoopono are allowed to join the lawsuit to defend the Kauai law, which is set to take effect in August.
The decision strengthens the county’s defense, which was hindered by lack of support from the mayor and the county’s budget constraints.
The ruling comes during the last month of the 2014 legislative session in which there’s been much fanfare but little action on bills to override county regulations on genetic engineering.
There’s still a possibility state lawmakers may revisit those proposals during conference committee over the next couple of weeks. But House Majority Leader Scott Saiki said previously that the House wants to wait to see how the court handles the controversial new rules.
The escalating court battle over Kauai’s ordinance is just one aspect of the ongoing fight over genetic engineering in Hawaii.
Last month, a papaya farmer filed a lawsuit against Hawaii County challenging a new requirement to register with the county and disclose his use of genetically engineered seeds.
The regulation is part of Bill 113, a highly debated measure passed last year that banned the growing of any new genetically modified crops on the island.
In response to the lawsuit, the county stopped registering farmers. Judge Gregg Nakamura is currently considering a motion for a preliminary injunction.
Meanwhile, on Maui, a group of residents want to put the question of genetically modified farming on the ballot this year. A Maui County Council bill that echoed Kauai’s disclosure requirements has stalled in committee, but if successful, the citizens’ ballot initiative would impose a temporary moratorium on growing genetically engineered crops.
Mark Sheehan, one of five residents behind the ballot measure, said the group submitted 9,600 signatures to the county last week. The county has 45 days to review the signatures. The group needs 8,500 valid signatures of registered voters to get on the ballot.
The growing movement against genetic engineering in Hawaii's counties has caused seed companies to step up their outreach efforts and band together to fight the regulations.
Monsanto launched a public relations campaign in January to improve its image in Hawaii, emphasizing that the company employs more than 1,000 people in the state.
Agrigenetics, Inc., BASF Plant Science LP, and Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. have joined Syngenta Seeds Inc. and Syngenta Hawaii LLC to fight the Kauai ordinance. The companies have enlisted a legal team that includes Paul Alston, one of the top litigation lawyers in the state, and former state attorney general Margery Bronster.
Activists against genetic engineering are also taking the fight seriously. The Center for Food Safety, an organization that has helped lead anti-genetic engineering efforts in Washington and California, opened its first office in Hawaii on Monday.
The organization’s executive director, Andrew Kimbrell, said the group is committed to getting rid of experimental farming in Hawaii.
“This is a long fight,” Kimbrell said. “This is ground zero.”
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