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Judge Rules County GMO Ban Invalid

A federal judge has ruled that a Maui County ban on the cultivation of genetically engineered (GE) crops is invalid. The order determined that the ordinance, initiated and passed by voters in November’s election, was preempted by federal and state law that allows cultivation of GE crops, and therefore the ban exceeds the county’s authority.

In the decision issued last Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Mollway made it clear that the decision was not a comment on the validity of concerns for or against the ban, but simply a legal response to the question of whether the ban was enforceable based on existing state and federal law.

“None of the motions asks this court to determine whether GE activities or GMOs are good, bad, beneficial or dangerous,” the order reads. “The court recognizes the importance of questions about whether GE activities and GMOs pose risks to human health, the environment and the economy, and about how citizens may participate in democratic processes…. This order is not an attempt by this court to pass judgement on any benefit or detriment posed by GE activities or GMOs.”

During last November’s election, a highly disputed voter initiative to ban the growing of genetically engineered crops passed in Maui County by a narrow margin of 50 percent to 48 percent, with just over 800 votes’ difference.

On Molokai, all of the island’s four precincts voted no by a ratio of nearly two to one, with 63 percent voting against the moratorium and 34 percent favoring it island-wide, according to stats from Hawaii’s elections website. 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, employee about 250 residents.

The initiative called for a moratorium until a detailed environmental impact study of the harms associated with growing genetically engineered organisms had been completed and reviewed by the County Council. 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 who are concerned about the potential negative effects that GMO crops and the pesticides used on them could have on human health and environment.

Those opposed to the initiative highlighted the hundreds of jobs on the line that could be lost in Maui County if a moratorium on growing GE crops went through. Supporters of the initiative said they don’t want farming practices they believe are detrimental to land and people to continue without a comprehensive, independent study completed.

On Molokai, the decision came as a blow to many families employed by Monsanto and Mycogen, and residents were left in limbo as to what the decision would actually mean.

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 mid-November, 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 week’s decision is a conclusion to that order. Quoting the U.S. Constitution, previous lawsuits that set precedent in the case, and other documentation showing that county law cannot supersede state and federal laws, Mollway ruled the county ordinance as unenforceable. While a number of countries, particularly in Europe, have banned the growing of GE crops, current Hawaii state and U.S. law permits the cultivation of GMOs.

Similar rulings struck down both Hawaii County’s partial ban on GE farming and Kauai County’s pesticide disclosure law last year, and both counties have filed appeals.

Mark Scheehan, a spokesperson for SHAKA, said the group also has plans to appeal.

“The District Court’s ruling is a big blow to Maui County voters that adopted this ordinance given the dangers involved with GMO operations,” said Mark Sheehan, spokesperson for SHAKA. “We do intend to appeal this decision and are hopeful that the 9th Circuit will recognize the impact that today’s ruling has on the community.”

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