Hawai‛i’s Fight Against GMOs Rages On

Hawai‛i’s people recently took the next step in the battle to protect themselves and their environment from genetically engineered crops.

fields in Hawaii
Aerial view of sugarcane fields on the island of Maui (Marisa Estivill/Shutterstock)

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Last week, Hawai‛i counties were back in court to defend their right to protect themselves from genetically engineered (GE) crops and the harmful pesticides that they’re modified to withstand. At stake is whether communities have a say over what goes on in their own backyards. But the Big Ag industry would have you believe these cases are about protecting upstanding companies from hostile anti-GE activists and their senseless acts of vandalism.

Before we get to that ridiculous notion, why has the GE debate landed in Hawai‛i in the first place? Even though most people know the Aloha State for its beautiful beaches, world-class surfing and delicious Kona coffee, the islands are also ground zero for GE crops. Hawai‛i’s year-round warm weather is attractive to beachgoers—and to agricultural companies that like to plant experimental crops as many times a year as possible. Today, Hawaiʻi has more experimental field trials of GE crops than any other state in the nation.

While the debate over whether GE foods are safe to eat rages on across the country, Hawaiʻi’s people are experiencing firsthand the deleterious environmental and health effects of GE crops and their pesticide counterparts. In Kauaʻi, for example, there have been several instances of schoolchildren and other residents suffering symptoms of pesticide exposure after GE crops were sprayed with toxic chemicals like the pesticide chlorpyrifos, a potent neurotoxin.

Despite their ongoing threat, Hawaiʻi’s authorities have dragged their heels on regulating GE crops. A few years back, the counties stepped in, with Kaua‘i, Maui and Hawai‘i all approving ordinances to help rein in GE crops.

  • On Kaua‘i, legislators passed an ordinance requiring large agricultural users of restricted use pesticides 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.
  • On 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.
  • In Maui County, where fields of GE crops also are widespread (especially on rural Moloka‘i), residents gathered thousands of signatures and passed an initiative that puts a moratorium on the cultivation of GE crops.

After the ordinances were approved, global agrochemical companies like Monsanto and Syngenta successfully sued to prevent the measures from taking effect. The counties and Earthjustice appealed, and all three cases were presented at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week.

All of the cases come down to the question of preemption—whether the counties’ new regulations conflict with existing state or federal regulations. Earthjustice and its clients don’t believe that they do, and just because the state can regulate something doesn’t mean that the county cannot, says Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff.

But just in case their preemption argument didn’t work, the seed companies also threw in some fear-based reasoning for good measure. Syngenta’s attorney claimed that the company is afraid of what will happen if people are allowed to know where and when GE crops are planted.

Says Achitoff, “The industry has being playing the ‘vandalism’ card for at least the past 15 years to oppose any form of disclosure to the public, as though secrecy were its only effective tool to fight it—as opposed to, you know, walls, fences, security guards, monitoring systems and all the other tools everyone else uses to protect their property.”

Achitoff adds that there are many hundreds of acres of fields in Hawai‘i well known to be dedicated to GE crops that no one has tampered with.

The larger question, of course, goes beyond vandalism. It’s about whether people have the right, through their local government, to protect themselves from the impacts of GE crops when federal and state government won’t step in to help them.

Earthjustice believes that they do, and it will continue to fight for that right in court.

Jessica is a former award-winning journalist. She enjoys wild places and dispensing justice, so she considers her job here to be a pretty amazing fit.

Established in 1988, Earthjustice's Mid-Pacific Office, located in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, works on a broad range of environmental and community health issues, including to ensure water is a public trust and to achieve a cleaner energy future.