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Background: GMOs and Pesticides Engineering an Environmental Disaster

A danger sign warns of pesticides used in a field of GE crops
A danger sign warns of pesticides used in a field of GE crops.
Mike Coots for Earthjustice

Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, surround us. In fact, more than half of all processed food in U.S. grocery stores—items like cereal, corn dogs and cookies—contain genetically-engineered (GE) ingredients.

Despite industry hype, these crops aren’t designed to increase yields or resist drought. Instead, most are designed to resist continuous doses of toxic herbicides like glyphosate. As a result, GE crops are responsible for increasing herbicide use by some 527 million pounds in the U.S. over the first 16 years of their commercial use. (Find out how Monsanto got its start)

Though the debate over the health effects of eating genetically modified food continues, one thing is certain. GE crops paired with their pesticide counterparts wreak havoc on the environment through:

  1. Increased herbicide use
  2. Increase of herbicide-resistant weeds
  3. The contamination of organic and conventional (non-GMO) crops

Despite these negative impacts, U.S. government regulators continue to approve GMO crops. Most recently, the EPA approved a toxic herbicide cocktail known as Enlist Duo, a blend of glyphosate and 2,4-D,  to be used on genetically engineered corn and soybean crops in six Midwest states with consideration for adding ten more states. Earthjustice has challenged the agency’s approval under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), arguing that the EPA did not adequately analyze the impacts of 2,4-D on human health. Earthjustice is also arguing that the EPA’s approval violated the Endangered Species Act, as there was no consultation by the EPA with the Fish & Wildlife Service to determine the harm to imperiled plants and animals of the expected tremendous increase in 2,4-D use. (Engineering an Environmental Disaster: 2,4-D Resistant Crops)

Earthjustice is also representing communities in Hawai‘i that have enacted bans or restrictions on GE crops. For years, the companies that develop GE crops and the pesticides used on them have treated Hawai‘i as their open-air laboratory and production center. Year-round warm weather allows several crops per year, and the companies spray dozens of pesticides—also year-round—near schools, homes and hospitals. 

The companies spray toxic pesticides such as chlorpyrifos, a developmental neurotoxin that causes brain damage in children; paraquat, linked to development of Parkinson’s disease; and atrazine, an endocrine disrupter that contaminates water sources. Schoolchildren have gone to the hospital on several occasions with symptoms of pesticide exposure, and organic and conventional farmers must take expensive measures to protect their crops from being contaminated by transgenic pollen drifting from the genetically engineered fields.  Despite these impacts, Hawai‘i’s state government and federal regulators have turned a deaf ear to any and all complaints.  (Read more in our feature, Pesticides in Paradise)

Over the last year, Hawai‘i has emerged as a leader in the movement towards local control of industries threatening public health and property. 


In Kaua‘i, the county passed an ordinance requiring large agricultural users of restricted use pesticides—those too dangerous to be used without special training and certification—to disclose what they spray, notify before they spray, and not spray near sensitive areas, like schools and waterways. It also requires growers of GE crops to disclose after the fact what they grew, and where.  Four of the world’s largest chemical companies—Syngenta, BASF, and affiliates of Dow and DuPont—sued the county for the right to continue to spray and grow whatever they want, wherever they want, in secret. Earthjustice is defending the ordinance on behalf of local residents who have personally suffered the consequences of living near the spraying fields as well as three nonprofits, Center for Food Safety, Pesticide Action Network and Surfrider Foundation.  (Defending Kaua‘i Pesticide Ordinance)


In Hawai‘i, the only major island that has not seen significant incursions by the genetic engineering industry, the county passed a moratorium on expansion of GE crops, except for papaya.  Again, the industry sued.  Earthjustice, on behalf of small organic family farmers and Center for Food Safety, is defending the moratorium. (Defending Moratorium of GMO Crops on Hawai‘i’s Big Island)


In Maui, where fields of GE crops also are widespread, especially on the rural island of Moloka‘i, also have had their fill of pesticide drift and transgenic contamination. Instead of working through a resistant county council, Maui residents gathered thousands of signatures and put a moratorium on the ballot. The initiative passed. Monsanto and other industry players sued a few days later, again alleging lack of county authority. Earthjustice is defending the moratorium on behalf of The Mothers on a Mission Hui—a group of Moloka‘i-based mothers concerned about the industry’s impacts—as well as Moloka‘i and Maui-based small farmers and Center for Food Safety. (Defending Maui Residents From Pesticides and GE Contamination)

All three county ordinances concern the same basic issue:  Do Hawai‘i’s people have the right, through their local government, to protect themselves from the hazards to their health and property this industry is causing, where federal and state government will not help them? Earthjustice believes they do, and will be continuing to defend that right in court.

Looking to learn more? See the latest on Earthjustice's GMO litigation and advocacy work.

Kaua'i, O‘ahu, Maui and Moloka'i
Kauaʻi, O‘ahu, Molokaʻi and Maui
(left to right)

Take Action: Say no to GMOs

Genetically modified foods are ubiquitous in U.S. grocery stores. Here's how to avoid them:

  1. 1. BUY ORGANIC. Foods certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are guaranteed to be devoid of any genetically modified ingredients.
  2. 2. EAT YOUR FRUITS AND VEGGIES.For the most part, fresh produce like apples, bananas and carrots have avoided the stain of genetic tinkering—for now.
  3. 3. Support Earthjustice. Today’s environmental challenges are greater than ever. But we live in a country of strong environmental laws—and Earthjustice holds those who break those laws accountable for their actions. Join the fight.