A recent ruling in Hawaii made the national news. Local politicians on the island of Kauai jumped on the “GMOs are bad band wagon,” and that’s when the trouble started. The county council set out to limit and regulate GMO crops and the pesticides applied to those fields. Kauai is a popular testing ground for biotech crops for many companies because of their favorable year-round climate. Reportedly, companies lease thousands of acres on the island for GMO crop testing and other work on genetically altered corn, soybeans, canola and rice.
In November, 2013, the Kauai County Council passed an ordinance, effective Aug. 16, 2014, requiring large agricultural companies to disclose pesticide use and GMO crop plantings while establishing buffer zones around schools, homes and hospitals to protect people from pesticides used on the crops. The council passed the measure over the veto of the mayor, who deemed the ordinance flawed, even though he was sympathetic to the intent.
In January, four seed companies (Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer, Agrigenetics d/b/a/Dow Agri Sciences and BASF Plant Sciences) filed suit, requesting a permanent injunction from the new ordinance. These companies argued that the ordinance was pre-empted by state law. In essence, the county does not have the authority to regulate agriculture.
Hawaii, like all states, has established a comprehensive framework for addressing the application of restricted use pesticides and the planting of GMO crops. State law precludes local regulation by the county.
On Aug. 25, U.S Magistrate Barry Kurren of the U.S. District Court in Hawaii ruled that the law passed by the local leaders on the island was invalid because it was pre-empted by Hawaii state law. In his decision that sided with the four seed companies, the Judge also indicated that: “this decision in no way diminished the health and environmental concerns of the people of Kauai.”
Ohio had similar cases with similar rulings when townships and other local governmental units attempted to restrict or zone CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). From a strategy perspective, the local politicians cause the agribusinesses to spend of time, effort and money defending a law that should not have been passed. And even when the measure is blocked by a judge, the local leader can claim, just like the Kauai councilman, “these companies have fought compliance for over a year now. They have much more money than the county…they’re billion-dollar corporations determined not to follow the rules of Kauai county. This is a long way from over.”
I’m betting that the attorneys advising the county knew that pre-emption would halt enforcement of the regulation. Yet, the best defense is a good offense. The county gained tremendous support throughout the state and country for their progressive action and created a public relations nightmare for the four seed companies who had to file suit merely to force the county to comply with the laws of the state.
The obsession over the evils of GMOs is troubling. Why are pesticides used on GMO crops thought to be worse than the chemicals applied to no-till fields? Why is it trendy to spend large amounts of money on a designer dog (labradoodle) yet horrific to genetically alter seeds to make them more productive to feed a hungry world? Why does a person who has never studied science think they know more about plant breeding than a seed scientist? And why does a consumer who has never farmed, and likely never been on a farm, think they have a right to dictate the management decisions a farmer makes for his operation?
I understand that consumers have concerns about public safety. Why are they not worried about the vitamin and supplement industry that is largely unregulated and untested? Why are local officials not as concerned with the threat of violence and explosions caused by manufacture of methamphetamine (which is rampant in many rural areas)? And why are other areas of industry encouraged to advance, yet we want farms to look and operate like the 1940s?
If I had the answer to those questions, I’d be wealthy enough to have the new calf barn of my dreams. Meanwhile, there are other GMO-related measures being proposed and passed in other jurisdictions. It will be interesting to see how all of this ultimately plays out in the courts. Stay tuned.