GMO appeal squeaks through Hawaii County Council

The Hawaii County Council voted 5-4 Wednesday to appeal a federal judge’s ruling striking a law that restricts genetically modified crops on the island.


The Hawaii County Council voted 5-4 Wednesday to appeal a federal judge’s ruling striking a law that restricts genetically modified crops on the island.

“This is an important decision with far-reaching impact on home rule,” said Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille, author of the original bill limiting GMO. “It’s not just about GMO.”

Puna Councilmen Greggor Ilagan and Danny Paleka joined Hilo Councilmen Dennis “Fresh” Onishi and Aaron Chung on the no votes. They cited concerns for local farmers and a reluctance to enter what could be lengthy litigation.

The county ordinance bans growing GMO crops in open-air conditions, with some exceptions.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Kurren invalidated the county law in a Nov. 27 order, saying state law pre-empts county law on the issue. He said lawmakers intended the state to have broad oversight of agricultural issues in Hawaii.

National nonprofit environmental advocacy groups Earthjustice and the Center for Food Safety are interested in representing the county at no charge, said Paul Achitoff, managing attorney for Earthjustice mid-Pacific regional office.

He disagreed that state law pre-empts county law on this issue, saying the state law the judge referred to was written well before GMO came to the state, so there was no legislative intent to cover GMO in the law.

“The Legislature never intended the existing state laws we have in Hawaii to govern genetically engineered crops,” Achitoff said.

The vast majority of the dozens who spoke during more than six hours of testimony favored the appeal. Some held their children in their laps, others performed oli, or chants. A Vietnam vet, comparing GMOs to Agent Orange, broke down and couldn’t continue.

The council received a big stack of form letters from opponents, but little individual testimony.

Former Mayor Harry Kim said outside the meeting that he supports the GMO ban. Businesses have long claimed their products are safe but science later proves that not to be the case, he said. Cigarettes and food dyes are two examples, he added.

“We need to do our homework,” Kim said. “It’s for our children and what we do to this earth, which is forever.”

“I urge you to stand up to bullies,” said state Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna and owner of Island Naturals food stores,“to stand up for our right to a democracy that’s free of corporate control.”

Many testifiers, especially organic gardeners, worried that GMO crops would contaminate their own small farms.

“Accepting the lower court decision means accepting that GMO contamination of conventional and organic farms is legal, healthy and acceptable to the people of Hawaii,” said Pahoa resident Jahnava Baldassarre. “This issue is important enough to have it decided by an appellate court.”

Scientists at the University of Hawaii in Hilo and Manoa opposed appealing the ruling.

“This was a misguided bill to begin with. It banned transgenic crops regardless of the transgenic trait as if traits don’t matter,” said Michael Shintaku, professor of plant pathology at UH-Hilo. “Transgenic crops should of course be evaluated for safety, and on a case-by-case basis. … Banning them because they arose from a common technology is just silly.”

Lukas Kambic, who is studying agriculture at UH-Hilo, said creating an anti-GMO atmosphere in Hawaii County will lure more people creating farms “crippled by ideology and emotion,” limiting the ability of islanders to feed themselves.

David Christopher, Department of Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering, didn’t identify his profession in his emailed testimony. But he supported local farmers.

“If you really connect with our farming constituents, you’ll understand the negative impact on farmers,” Christopher said. “We need to hold Hawaii state law and the federal Plant Protection Act as primary principles to follow.”


Papaya and corn already growing on the island, as well as scientific study in greenhouses and other enclosed settings, were exempted by the county ordinance. That didn’t satisfy one papaya packer, who said the mere discussion of the law has hurt his sales.

“It is very hard to understand why you take our tax money to drive us out of business,” said Eric Weiner.

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