Documents recently produced by the Department of Agriculture, State of Hawai’i (DOA) in a lawsuit seeking access to government records regarding open-air field tests in Hawai’i of “biopharmaceutical” crops genetically engineered to produce industrial chemicals and drugs reveal that DOA regularly approves the field tests based on documents stripped of any information that would allow DOA to assess the tests’ risks to public health and the environment. For example, all information on the identity of the biologically active substances the crops are designed to produce and even location of the tests are apparently removed before DOA receives them and issues its approval. In a motion heard by the state circuit court last week, plaintiff Center for Food Safety (CFS), a national nonprofit organization, represented by Earthjustice, sought to compel production of all documents in DOA’s possession. In response, DOA said the blank documents were all it received from the individual field test permittees and the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA) prior to giving its approval.
“The documents produced show total abandonment of any oversight role by the state of these potentially harmful activities,” said Isaac Moriwake, attorney for Earthjustice. “When our own state officials are content to remain completely ignorant of these activities happening in our own backyards, we have reason to be very concerned.”
Hawai’i has had over 1,400 open-air field tests of genetically engineered crops — more than any other state. These include numerous tests of “biopharmaceutical” crops designed to function as biological factories of various drugs and chemicals including contraceptives, hormones, blood thinners and clotters, vaccines, and many other potent, biologically active substances. Because they are conducted in the open, the tests pose an array of risks to conventional agriculture, public health, the food supply, and the environment.
“Given the obvious risks of growing drugs in food crops, one would hope that the state does more than rubber stamp blank documents,” said Peter Jenkins, attorney for CFS. “That’s not what we’ve seen in our lawsuit so far.”
In its motion heard last week, CFS also asked the court to compel DOA to provide detailed, itemized justifications for any information it was seeking to withhold. DOA previously attempted to withhold a wide range of information under broad claims of “confidential business information,” or “CBI.” DOA and industry representatives included in such “CBI” claims such information as field test location and contact information, citing alleged dangers of vandalism by “underground environmental terrorists.”
At the hearing, the court agreed with CFS and rejected DOA’s blanket responses. It ordered DOA to produce detailed justifications within 60 days.
“We’re pleased that the court recognized the need for DOA to do its due diligence and explain why any of this information should be withheld from the public,” said Jenkins. “The industry routinely tries to conceal its activities at the expense of the public safety and right to know.”
The DOA has only one staff person assigned to oversee all field tests of genetically engineered crops in the state. This official is, in fact, in charge of all plant quarantine matters in the state, not just genetically engineered crops.
“Of course, without any information about what is being tested or where it is being tested, it doesn’t matter how many staff people you have,” Moriwake said. “How can the state expect to do its job?”
Moriwake noted that Hawai’i law already requires field test permittees to provide the state with all information contained in any permit applications for field tests, but that the documents produced by DOA show a lack of compliance with this mandate. Moriwake also referred to a number of bills currently before the state legislature, including proposals to impose a moratorium on “biopharming” and to reveal the locations of field tests.