Hawaii County’s effort to register farms growing genetically modified crops was put on hold Friday.
Hilo Circuit Court Judge Greg Nakamura granted a temporary restraining order in favor of John Doe, an unnamed plaintiff, two days after the deadline for farmers to comply with the county’s registration program.
The order prevents the county from enforcing the registry of genetically modified organisms and disclosing information it has already received, at least for now.
Lawyers for the plaintiff, who argue that such disclosure would make farmers targets for vandalism or commercial espionage, are also seeking a preliminary injunction. That request will be heard March 24.
“These are farmers who really fear for their plants, for their farms, and for their livelihoods,” said attorney Margery Bronster, while speaking to the court via telephone.
The registry is part of the county’s new law banning the use and testing of modified plants within an open-air environment. Farmers already growing GMO crops are exempted, and those who already use or will use modified crops within the confines of the law must provide such information to the county.
At issue is the law’s requirement that GMO farmers provide information such as the tax map keys of their farms, a detailed description of the location of GMO crops, and types of crops grown.
The law says that such information may be kept confidential if releasing it to the public would frustrate the county’s ability to gather accurate information.
While meant to increase disclosure, Bronster said the law fails to provide criteria for the release of information the farmers provide or means for them to keep it confidential if they believe its release would cause them harm.
Deputy Corporation Counsel Michael Udovic said the law is valid and within the power of the “county’s concern for the public good.”
“I don’t think it’s wise,” he said of the order. “It’s the court’s ruling.”
As of the deadline Wednesday, the county had 210 registrants.
The county Department of Research and Development, which handles the program, also requests non-GMO farms sign up to increase its database. Donn Mende, the department’s deputy director, said most of those in the registry might be “conventional farms.”
The county is also challenging the plaintiff’s anonymity.
Bronster said the lawsuit is being amended to add Ross Sibucao, a papaya farmer, as a named plaintiff but argued the identity of the initial plaintiff shouldn’t be revealed.
She said that would require the release of information the “lawsuit is intended to prevent.”
The hearing provided the first venue for the law outside of the County Council chambers, where testimony on the potential harms and benefits of genetic engineering lasted for half a year.
The gallery reflected the divide over the issue, with a mix of GMO supporters and opponents filling the seats. Outside the courthouse, one man stood with a sign protesting the law’s exemptions.
Derek Brewer, a GMO opponent who testified several times before the Council, said he was disappointed to see it challenged on such details.
While farmers of GMO papaya, the bulk of transgenic crops on the Big Island, have faced vandalism before, Brewer said it’s already clear who grows the crops. He doesn’t believe the registry makes them more vulnerable.
“The bill won’t change that,” he said. “The bill doesn’t change the facts of GMO.”
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.