Three of the world’s largest biotech companies, Syngenta, Pioneer Hi-Bred and Agrigenetics, are suing the County of Kauai in hopes of stopping a recently passed GMO and pesticide disclosure law from being enacted.

The Kauai County Council passed Bill 2491 in November, overriding a veto by Mayor Bernard Carvalho. The law is set to take effect on August 16.

In a lawsuit filed late Friday, the biotech firms argue that the county law discriminates against companies growing genetically modified organisms, preempts federal and state laws that govern GMOs and pesticides, amounts to an illegal confiscation of portions of their property and exposes the companies to unfair competitive risks.

The law “imposes unwarranted and burdensome disclosure requirements relating to pesticide usage and GM crops,” and exposes the companies “to risks of corporate espionage, vandalism and environmental terrorism,” according to the 69-page complaint filed in federal court.

The Kauai law requires biotech companies to disclose what pesticides they are spraying, where and in what quantities. The companies argue that such specificity could jeopardize trade secrets.

A “knowledgable competitor can often determine from pesticide use patterns the nature of the new GM trait under development,” according to the complaint.

The Kauai law also sets up buffers between fields sprayed with pesticides and public areas, such as schools, hospitals, parks and roads and requires the companies to notify neighbors prior to spraying.

Commercial farms must also report any genetically altered crops they are growing to the county, including their location and the date they were first planted.

Violations of the law can be punishable by jail time or fines of up to $25,000 a day.

The lawsuit was expected — the biotech industry vowed to sue the county council last year if it passed Bill 2491. The Center for Food Safety, a leader in the national anti-GMO movement, said in November that it would represent the county for free if it was sued, while other well-known environmental attorneys in Hawaii have spoken out in support of the Kauai law.

The biotech companies issued a joint statement Saturday calling the Kauai ordinance invalid.

“It arbitrarily targets our industry with burdensome and baseless restrictions on farming operations by attempting to regulate activities over which counties in Hawaii have no jurisdiction,” according to the statement.

The Kauai GMO and pesticide law has attracted the attention of national environmental advocacy groups.

Soon after the lawsuit was filed, Paul Towers, a spokesman for Pesticide Action Network, based in Oakland, California, issued a statement calling the biotech companies “bullies” that have “challenged the democratic process, and aim to undermine protections for Hawaii’s children.”

But the biotech companies also argue that the democratic process has been undermined.

When Kauai County councilmembers convened in November to vote on whether to override the mayor’s veto, it became apparent that they didn’t have enough votes to do so. The council hastily voted to recess the meeting for two days, during which time they appointed a new member to the county council to replace former Councilwoman Nadine Nakamura, who had recently left to work as the mayor’s managing director. When the county council reconvened, the new member, Mason Chock, provided the needed support to successfully override the mayor’s veto with a 5-2 vote.

The biotech companies argue in their complaint that the Kauai County Council violated Hawaii’s open meetings law.

You can read the complaint here.


Photo: A Syngenta biotech field on the west side of Kauai (Nick Grube, Civil Beat)


— Sophie Cocke