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Court Rules Against County GMO Regulation

Last Friday, a federal court of appeals ruled that Hawaii counties do not have the authority to ban or regulate genetically engineered (GE) crops, commonly called GMOs, and the use of pesticides. The decision upholds the ruling of a lower court made last year, and concludes a highly disputed voter initiative in Maui County to ban the growing of GE crops passed in 2014.

Other county ordinances also overruled by the court’s decision include a Hawaii Island law signed in 2013 preventing new GE crops from being grown, and a 2013 Kauai bill requiring pesticide disclosure and buffer zones for application around schools, waterways, parks and other public use facilities.

The Maui County initiative called for a moratorium on the cultivation of all genetically engineered crops in Maui County while studies are done examining effects on human health and the environment. It was passed by a narrow margin during the 2014 election.

Following the passing of the ordinance, a number of businesses including Molokai’s Chamber of Commerce, Monsanto, Friendly Isle Auto Parts, Hikiola Cooperative and others opposing the initiative sued the County of Maui in an attempt to prevent enforcement of the initiative. In late 2014, the court ordered a hold on execution of the ordinance “until March 31, 2015 or until further order of this court” to allow a ruling on the legality of moratorium.

Last summer, a federal judge ruled the initiative was invalid. The order determined that the ordinance was preempted by federal and state law that allows cultivation of GE crops, and therefore the ban exceeds the county’s authority.

The group behind the initiative was the SHAKA Movement — which stands for Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and the Aina – a nonprofit of citizens concerned about the potential negative effects that GMO crops and the pesticides used on them could have on human health and environment. They appealed the 2015 decision, resulting in a review by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and last week’s ruling.

For Molokai, the debate over GE crops has been particularly embroiled. Monsanto and Dow Agrosciences, known locally as Mycogen — companies known for testing and cultivation of GE crops — provide a majority of the island’s jobs and together, employ about 250 residents.

“The court’s ruling had made it clear that the Maui County GMO moratorium was illegal and should never have passed,” said Rob Stevenson of the Molokai Chamber of Commerce. “This is a positive ruling for all our local farmers, all of agriculture in Hawaii, but most importantly for our local businesses here on Molokai where the seed industry is a welcomed and stable part of our Molokai economy.”

As of Sunday, SHAKA representatives had not yet released a statement on the court’s decision or any next steps the organization may plan to take.

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