Friday, October 10, 2014

Maui's GMO Moratorium: How'd we get here?

            Surely everyone has heard something about that “GMO thing” by now. It started on Maui back in June with a voter initiative.
The initiative petition is a unique procedure allowing voters themselves to propose an ordinance. In other words, it need not be introduced by Council members. The County Clerk received a voter initiative containing more than 9,000 signatures asking the County Council to temporarily ban the farming of genetically modified organisms.
A GMO was defined by “in vitro nucleic acid techniques” and “[m]ethods of fusing cells beyond the taxonomy family that overcome natural physiological, reproductive, or recombination barriers, and that are not techniques used in traditional breeding and selection[.]”
This is the definition used all over the country that is confronting the same issue. Despite the need for a biologist to translate what this means in plain English, the consensus seems to be that no matter how it’s defined, bi-tech companies like Mycogen and the more well-known Monsanto are going to be adversely effected.
            The moratorium would last until more studies were done to ensure that they were safe for the environment and the health and well-being of Maui’s inhabitants. The ban could be lifted by the Council, but it would require a long and drawn out process with comprehensive studies, a 2/3 majority, public hearings, and a finding by the Council that lifting the ban would not “result in significant harm and will result in significant benefits to the health of present and future generations of Maui citizens, [and] significantly supports the conservation and protection of Maui’s natural beauty and all natural resources[.]”
            And so it began. Monsanto and other bio-tech companies lobbied very hard against the passing of his ordinance. On the other side you had the anti-GMO groups and the SHAKA movement. Both sides presented their experts and the Council sat through hours upon hours of testimony both for and against. The Council didn’t vote on the bill and by law, the bill would be decided by the voters in November.
            But first—this being America—a brief interlude into Court. A group of County residents and organizations like the Molokai Chamber of Commerce and Citizens Against the Maui County Farming Ban sued the County Clerk and the Chief Election Officer of the State. The plaintiffs argued that the question on the ballot was misleading and confusing. Along with the lawsuit came a restraining order prohibiting the question from going onto the ballot. The Court was unpersuaded and dissolved the restraining order in September and allowed the question to go through onto the ballot.
            And so the stage was set for November. Voters will be asked a single question:
 “Should the proposed initiative prohibiting the cultivation or reproduction of genetically engineered organisms within the County of Maui, which may be amended or repealed as to a specific person or entity when required environmental and public health impact studies, public hearings, a two thirds vote and a determination by the County Council that such operation or practice meets certain standards, and which establishes civil and criminal penalties, be adopted for Maui County?”
This is why you can’t open a newspaper, turn on the television, listen to the radio, access a website, or do just about anything else without getting some kind of message about this question.
            The media blitz on both sides is reaching a feverous pitch. “YES” folks include Native Hawaiian activists like Walter Ritte and Dr. Lorrin Pang. They are allied with concerned parent-types and organic-foodies. The arguments for the moratorium are that it’s “temporary,” and are designed to ensure that GMOs are safe to have around.
            Camp “NO” seems to have slick television ads and highly-recognizable folks. They argue that this moratorium is unnecessary and will cost the County a lot of jobs. Some are even concerned about putting local farmers not only out of business, but in jail. (As a defense lawyer, I had a good chuckle when I saw the ad with former Honolulu prosecutor Peter Carlisle deeply concerned about a new misdemeanor on the books in Maui County.).
            If the majority of voters check the “YES” box, the issue might try to get back into Court before the moratorium goes into effect. Remember Kauai? A similar thing happened when Kauai County tried to label GMOs. A federal judge ruled the ordinance unlawful this summer.
And if the question is answered in the negative, then you can bet the opposition to bio-tech companies aren’t going to just pack up and leave—especially since most of them are born and bred local folks and Maui residents.

So no matter how this long, wordy and hotly-debate question is answered, you can bet the issue won’t be resolved this November.

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