Maui voters passed a moratorium on growing GMO crops, in spite of millions of dollars spent by Big Ag and biotech companies on opposition ads. But now Monsanto and Dow have initiated legal proceedings to prevent implementation of the Maui GMO ban.
Arty Mangan, Guest Blogger, Bioneers Restorative Food Systems Director, interviewed Michael Carroll, attorney for the GMO moratorium, about what’s at stake in the case.
For more resources and to hear the successful story of getting GMOs out of Cheerios, please check out the video of our recent webinar, “New Strategies for Battling GMOs” with John Roulac of Nutiva.
Arty Mangan: Why did the people of Maui find it necessary to pass a Moratorium on GMO crops?
Michael Carroll: There’s a major issue in Maui and actually throughout Hawaii in that the agricultural companies, like Monsanto and the other giant companies, are using Maui as their testing fields to develop genetically modified crops.
They’re using high quantities and combinations of pesticides; they’re developing new strains of genetically modified crops that have not been tested; there’s the potential for drift with respect to these new crops and with respect to pesticides.
There’s no mechanism on the federal or state level that regulates these activities. Much of it is performed in secret.
The fields are located in really close proximities to schools and neighborhoods. In one neighborhood when you’re walking around you can taste the pesticides on your breath. There are complaints and concerns of health issues, cancer rates, asthma, and health problems.
All of these have not been tested, studied or evaluated. As it stands now, there aren’t any regulations that are protecting the county.
There are concerns about birth defects as well.
Yes, there are. There have been studies in Central America, for example, where GMO operations are prevalent where they have linked GMO operations and the high use of pesticides to birth defects, cancer and other serious illnesses. We’ve included that in our papers with the court.
However, there have not been any studies conducted on the operations in Maui. One of our experts has found that the GMO field trials use higher quantities and combinations of pesticides that may actually have more adverse effects than traditional farming done elsewhere where studies have been conducted and where there have been links to birth defects.
What does the moratorium say in terms of how health testing and environment impact issues will be reviewed?
The moratorium basically establishes a requirement that there’s a suspension on any further development or growth of genetically modified crops. So all of it will stop until a study is completed.
The county has basically set up a structure where the industry is to fund a study that will evaluate the environmental and health issues, and the impacts on native Hawaiian rights, like an environment impact statement, and to evaluate all those issues that are concerns to the local community.
Once that study is completed, it’s going to be published and there will be public hearings. After that process is completed the council will review it and make a determination if the activities are safe, and then can either repeal the moratorium or continue it.
So the biotech companies are required to fund the studies, but will they have input on how they are done? What’s their involvement in the protocols of the testing?
In the past, especially when it comes to biotech research for the USDA and FDA, there are all kinds of loopholes where the biotech industry can interpret things the way they want or have health tests that run very short periods of time and don’t really give accurate information about long-term impacts.
The testing requires that the county actually select independent people that don’t have any ties to the industry to administer and determine the tests. It’s not like some of the studies or tests that are done on the federal level where basically the industry is conducting the test.
The purpose was really intended to have a neutral third party, and not to allow the industry to control the outcome of the test results.
An important issue in this case is the rights of local governance, the county initiative passed, but Monsanto wants to move the legal proceedings to the federal courts and disempower local government.
We always wanted to have this case decided in state court because the constitutional issues are really important. The local environment and the health issues are really important and we wanted to make sure it was decided on a local level, which is why we have been pushing for it to be decided in state court.
Recently we received a recommendation from the magistrate judge denying our request to have it brought back to the state court, and we are submitting objections in the next several days to that ruling. We think it misapplies the standard for a federal court jurisdiction.
One of the precepts of federal court jurisdiction is that it’s supposed to defer to state court proceedings and not overstep the bounds of federal court jurisdiction to interfere with local policies and local issues. That’s been a major issue for us in our papers.
What has been the position and role of the county officials?
Prior to the election the majority of the council members and the mayor both went out and verbally opposed the moratorium. Immediately following the election, they initially said they were going to implement it, however, they have not been helpful. They’ve actually been unhelpful in terms of the lawsuit.
For example, after the moratorium passed when Monsanto filed a lawsuit to stop its implementation, within a week the county had agreed to enjoin the enforceability of the ordinance, basically suspending any further action on the ordinance.
Most significantly, in response to the industry’s motion for summary judgment to invalidate the law, they’ve taken no position. They’ve opposed our lawsuit that we brought in state court to have the issues decided in state court. They’ve sought to dismiss it. They’ve joined in Monsanto’s efforts to have the case decided in federal court.
So they have not been helpful in terms of getting the ordinance passed or following the will of the voters. I don’t think there’s a credible reason for the county to not take action to enforce the ordinance, and when you look at the obligations of the county and their county charter, I think they clearly have a duty to enforce the voter initiative. I think the fact that it’s already been approved by the voters requires them to do that.
Assuming this clears the courts and the ordinance is enforced, what are the penalties of violating the moratorium?
There are large monetary penalties. The penalty is $10,000 for the first violation.
During the campaign the biotech industry spent millions of dollars flooding the airwaves. What were some of their arguments?
They’ve taken the position that the economics of Maui depends on the Biotech industry activities. I don’t agree with that.
The real main industry for Maui is tourism. Maui previously had to deal with the sugar cane industry and how they were polluting the land and causing environmental problems, and now they’re dealing with the GMO industry.
Realistically, tourism is the primary industry in Maui, and that needs to be protected, and their natural resources need to be protected, not at the expense of a couple dollars from agricultural companies.
The Hawaii State Constitution recognizes environmental rights, and states that land and soil are held and preserved for future generations. Will that be useful in these legal proceedings?
Sure. We’ve been using the Hawaii Constitution very strongly and relying on it a lot in our papers.
The Hawaii Constitution is unique in that it does recognize that the lands of Hawaii are held in trust for the people, that there are obligations on the part of the state and county to protect and preserve the natural environment. It gives individuals standing to bring lawsuits if there’s been pollution and things like that.
We have been relying on that in our papers and making that a main issue. That’s what sets Hawaii apart, not only because it is an isolated island chain with a very fragile ecosystem, but the fragility of the ecosystem is also recognized in the Constitution and given rights to the people to protect it.
Is there anything that people outside of Hawaii can do to support your efforts?
Hopefully we can get public support not only in Hawaii, not only in Maui, but throughout the United States to support legislation on the federal and state level to stop and regulate these activities, and to control the potential harms that are being conducted.
Learn more about how you can join the fight for a GMO-free food system in this video of our recent webinar, “New Strategies for Battling GMOs,” with John Roulac of Nutiva.