For conventional Hawaiian farmers, last week’s news that a federal court struck down Ordinance 960 in Kauai County probably felt like a ray of sunshine through a whole lot of dark clouds.
As my friend Joni has been following on her blog (linked here), the fight for modern agriculture on the islands of Hawaii has been long and hard fought. With radicals attempting to control the message of modern production methods, including GMOs, the atmosphere has become hostile for both farmers and agriculture companies alike.
Ordinance 690 was exactly the type of law Hawaii farmers were facing. The Kauai County Council passed the measure in October of 2013 after a grueling 19 hour session. The first round resulted in the Mayor vetoing the bill, which was then overridden by the Council. The Ordinance imposed additional reporting requirements for ag companies and farmers alike. As the Honolulu Civil Beat explained:
When it goes into effect in August, Bill 2491 will require heavy users of restricted use pesticides, primarily the biotech companies, to disclose what pesticides they are spraying, where and in what quantities. The law also requires farmers to report to the county any genetically altered crops that they are growing, and it creates buffer zones between fields sprayed with pesticides and schools, parks, medical facilities and private residences. The county will also be required to study whether pesticides are harming the environment or the health of residents. Employees of biotech companies can be fined or jailed for violating pesticide disclosure requirements and buffer zones.
(Source: Honolulu Civil Beat.) The ordinance was set to take effect 9 months after it went into effect.
Several agriculture companies, including local branches of Sygenta and Pioneer, filed suit against the Kauai County to prevent the law from going into effect. Judge Barry M. Kurren ruled that the ordinance was preempted by state law and was therefore invalid. Without inserting too much legalese into the explanation, Judge Kurren basically determined that the state of Hawaii had already set up all the laws needed for the regulation of pesticides and the establishment of “buffer zones.” When a state has legislated an entire area of the law, then the local government cannot also regulate that same area of the law. In other words, the state law preempts the local law. State law wins.
As Judge Kurren stated in the opinion:
This decision in no way diminishes the health and environmental concerns of the people of Kauai. The Court’s ruling simply recognizes that the State of Hawaii has established a comprehensive framework for addressing the application of restricted use pesticides and the planting of GMO crops, which presently precludes local regulation by the County.
The county spent a whopping $175,000 in legal fees to defend the ordinance, even though some people predicted it was preempted by state law back when the bill was passed. Of course, Kauai County plans on appealing the decision.
If you remember, I indicated that the Food and Drug Administration should be put in charge of GMO labeling. If the FDA did create rules regarding labeling for biotech products, federal law could potentially trump all state laws about labeling and impose a federal standard for the entire country. This would make the system uniform and would definitely protect farmers from having to comply with mismatched and varied state laws on labeling.
Lucky for Hawaii farmers and ag companies, Judge Kurren thinks the state of Hawaii has already written the laws that it needs written for the entire state. While on the one hand that might seem like the state is taking away local control, protecting farmers from radical minority groups trumps. It is a lot easier for an anti-GMO organization to take over a local county government and start writing laws than it is for that same organization to take over an entire state government. It would be even harder for them to take over the federal government.
Remember, this same issue came up in Oregon and prevented one county from banning the production of GMOs completely.
Hawaii has a long way to go before the issues surrounding biotechnology will be worked out. The ag companies and farmers in that state will have to continue dealing with the constant assault on their livelihood with deceptive fear campaigns.
But at least a federal judge brushed aside one of their problems.