Lawsuit seeks to undo Hawaii County’s GMO law


Several Big Island agriculture groups and farmers filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Monday seeking to overturn Hawaii County’s law restricting the use of genetically modified crops.

The lawsuit is the second legal challenge filed against the 6-month-old law, which bans open-air testing of transgenic plants while prohibiting most outdoor uses of modified agriculture.

Another lawsuit challenging the law’s requirement that exempted growers, mainly those using virus-resistant papaya, register with the county was filed in March in Hilo Circuit Court. That lawsuit seeks to stop the registry, and a temporary restraining order granted by the court remains in effect.

Lorie Farrell, a spokeswoman for some of the plaintiffs, said both lawsuits will continue simultaneously.

The plaintiffs in the federal case — including organizations representing Big Island nurseries, papaya and banana growers, and cattle ranchers — are arguing the ban on most modified crops puts the county in conflict with federal and state laws in addition to the science of biotechnology.

The lawsuit says the law is “backed by no findings or evidence that GE (genetically engineered) crops are in any way harmful, or in any way endanger the local environment.”

Plaintiffs are represented by attorney and former state Attorney General Margery Bronster, who is also representing the plaintiff, Hawaii Papaya Industry Association President Ross Sibucao, in the case at Circuit Court.

She is joined in the federal case by three attorneys from Washington, D.C.-based Arent Fox LLP and an attorney representing the Biotechnology Industry Organization, one of the 10 plaintiffs.

The lawsuit refers to BIO as the world’s largest biotechnology trade association.

Farmer Richard Ha, cattle rancher Jason Moniz, floral growers Gordon Inouye and Eric Tanouye, and Pacific Floral Exchange are also listed as plaintiffs.

The Big Island-based plaintiffs are affected by the county’s law, the lawsuit says, since it prevents them from using modified crops approved by the federal government, and disease-resistant crops now under development.

Those modified crops being researched in Hawaii include bananas, anthurium, orchids and lettuce.

The research is similar to the work on Rainbow papaya, which was engineered to be resistant to the ringspot virus in the 1990s. That papaya is exempt from the law, and, according to the lawsuit, makes up 85 percent of the island’s papaya crop.

The lawsuit also highlights the federal approval process for crops with modified genes and support of the technology from scientific organizations, while criticizing the logic behind the law, including use of the “precautionary principle.”

In reference to the principle, the county’s law states in part that “if a new technology poses threats of harm to human or environmental health, the burden of proof is on the promoter of the technology to prove that the technology is safe.”

The lawsuit argues those burdens already are met through the federal regulatory process. That includes oversight from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, and, at least in some cases, the Environmental Protection Agency.

“In short, using the ‘precuationary principle’ as its purported predicate, Bill 113 puts the county in direct conflict with determinations made after careful consideration by expert federal agencies, and purports to outlaw agricultural activities that the federal government has specially authorized after performing a thorough scientific review,” the lawsuit says.

Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille, who introduced the bill the council approved, referred to the lawsuit as “hogwash,” including the argument that federal agencies are doing enough oversight.

She thinks feeding studies need to be done, but reserves most of her criticism for herbicide-resistant crops produced by biotech seed companies.

“Do we want dust-bowl monoculture owned by multinationals or do we want to have small, diversified farming on this island?” Wille asked.

She acknowledged not all modified crops are made resistant to chemicals, or owned by large companies, and said she would like to see the county continue discussing the issue.

“I think you need to get the law working and then you refine it,” said Wille, who also is an attorney.

The lawsuit doesn’t appear to address the county’s ban on transgenic coffee and taro, adopted in 2008.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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