The ban exempts existing papaya crops and growers. However, no new acres can be planted, according to the case filed June 9 in federal court. Hawaii County includes the entire Island of Hawaii. A scheduling hearing is set Sept. 8.
Growers say the ban — known as Bill 113 — conflicts with state and federal laws and is unconstitutional, according to the case filed by the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association (HPIA) and the Big Island Banana Growers Association. Other plaintiffs joining in the case include the Hawaii Cattlemen’s Council, the Pacific Floral Exchange and the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
The Hawaii County Council approved Bill 113 in December with a 6-3 vote. It requires existing GMO growers to annually register and pay a $100 fee. In another court action, a judge recently ruled the county cannot make public growers’ personal information and specific field locations collected in the registry.
Growers challenged publication of the registry saying it would encourage vandalism, which has previously resulted in crop destruction.
Hawaii’s papaya industry was nearly destroyed by ringspot virus in the early 1990s, and development of the Rainbow variety was the industry’s answer. The Rainbow variety passed federal review and was first planted in 1998. According to court documents, at least 85% of the papaya crop grown on Hawaii Island is Rainbow.
“Bill 113 has stigmatized HPIA members by conveying a false message that (GMO) crops and plants harm human health and the environment and has imposed other costs on HPIA,” according to the lawsuit.
Banana growers, including Richard Ha who is a plaintiff in the federal case, contend they need the option to test and possibly plant GMO bananas to mitigate threats from bunchy top virus and other diseases.
Cattlemen on the island want to grow additional animal feed, including genetically modified corn, to combat increasing costs of importing feed or shipping their animals to the mainland for finishing, according to the complaint.
The county flatly denied all allegations in its answer to the federal case, stating it intends to rely on the defense of “public necessity.”
County Councilwoman Margaret Wille sponsored Bill 113 last year. Among those speaking in favor of the GMO ban at public hearings was actress Roseanne Barr who lives on the island and identified herself as an organic farmer.
The ban states its purpose is to protect the public’s right to a “clean and healthful environment,” to protect non-GMO crops and plants from GMO cross pollination and to preserve the island’s ecosystem “while promoting the cultural heritage of indigenous agricultural practices.”
The growers say existing regulations already provide those protections. Their complaint cites research by the U.S. government, World Health Organization, American Medical Association and the European Union that show GMO food is safe.
The complaint also cites statistics from the USDA that show 93% of soybeans and 90% of corn grown in the U.S. are GMO. It also cites a statement from the Grocery Manufacturers Association that 70% to 80% of all food consumed in the U.S. contains genetically modified ingredients.