A federal judge has invalidated Maui County’s moratorium on genetically engineered crops that voters approved last fall.

Judge Susan Mollway said in a ruling filed Tuesday that the ordinance is “invalid and unenforceable” because it is preempted by state and federal law.

That’s similar to the reasoning that Judge Barry Kurren relied upon to strike down both Hawaii County’s partial ban on genetically modified farming and Kauai County’s pesticide disclosure law last year.

Molokai Mycogen GMO Tractor

Employees at Mycogen Seeds, an affiliate of Dow AgroSciences, lay irrigation lines in a field on Molokai.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Mollway emphasized that the ruling is not a statement on whether genetically modified organisms are beneficial or detrimental.

“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,” she said. “But any court is a reactive body that addresses matters before it rather than reaching out to grab hold of whatever matters may catch a judge’s fancy because the matters are interesting, important, or of great concern to many people.”

The decision disappointed Autumn Ness, a resident of Kihei, Maui, who canvassed 3,000 homes last year to help get the ballot initiative passed.

Maui County voters approved the bill last November by a margin of 1,077 votes. The biotech industry, including Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences, spent more than $7 million attempting to defeat the measure, making it the most expensive political campaign in the state’s history.

Ness said that Mollway’s ruling is painful for people like her who made sacrifices, including quitting her job, to counter the biotech companies’ well-funded campaign and ensure that the initiative was approved.

“It feels like the politicians and the judges are looking for ways to let these chemical companies run without oversight,” she said. “Heaven forbid they look for ways to uphold the will of the people.”

Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences and several local businesses filed a lawsuit challenging the ordinance within days of its passage, contending that they and Maui County’s economy would suffer “immediate and irreparable harm” if the bill went into effect.

The ordinance would have imposed a moratorium on GMO farming until the county conducted a public health and environmental study of its impact. The SHAKA Movement, the organization that spearheaded the initiative, intervened to defend the bill.

John Purcell, vice president at Monsanto Hawaii, said in a statement that the company is proud to be part of Hawaii’s agricultural community and looks forward to continuing its operations.

“We’re listening and we’ve heard the concerns some people have about GMOs and today’s farming practices,” he said. “Our commitment to ongoing dialogue with our neighbors doesn’t stop today. We understand the responsibility we have to farm sustainably and to work collaboratively, and we welcome the opportunity to continue having conversations with members of the community.”

Mark Sheehan, a member of the SHAKA Movement, told Civil Beat the group is planning to appeal.

“We are very disappointed that the constitutional rights of 23,000 people here are being set aside by a couple of judges in Honolulu who I think have completely misread the case,” Sheehan said. “This law was written specifically because there was no state or federal law regulating genetically modified organisms … The state and the county have the responsibility to protect the health of the environment, which they’re not doing.”

Kauai County and Hawaii County are in the process of appealing Kurren’s decisions on their respective anti-GMO laws to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Paul Achitoff, an attorney at the environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice who is defending both the Kauai and Big Island ordinances, said he expects the appellate court will hear the cases sometime next year.

“The future of this type of regulation in Hawaii will depend on what the Ninth Circuit decides in these cases,” Achitoff said.

Follow Civil Beat on Facebook and Twitter. You can also sign up for Civil Beat’s free daily newsletter.

About the Author