GMOs: Local fight or state kuleana?

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It may be a small island, but folks on the two sides of the GMO debate seem to be worlds apart. When Margery Bronster took the podium at an annual meeting of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture in Keauhou to sketch out the reasons she’s fought with the counties over the cultivation of genetically modified organisms, she did so as GMO opponents pointed to the one-sidedness of hearing only from Bronster and not the other side of the GMO debate.

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It may be a small island, but folks on the two sides of the GMO debate seem to be worlds apart. When Margery Bronster took the podium at an annual meeting of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture in Keauhou to sketch out the reasons she’s fought with the counties over the cultivation of genetically modified organisms, she did so as GMO opponents pointed to the one-sidedness of hearing only from Bronster and not the other side of the GMO debate.

Since a constitutional convention in 1978, Hawaii’s guiding document has held the state — not the counties — responsible for protecting and promoting agriculture both large and small, she told the group at the Sheraton Kona Resort &Spa at Keauhou Bay on Tuesday. Bronster is a former Hawaii attorney general representing a coalition of agricultural producers who sued Kauai, Maui and Hawaii counties for enacted bans or limitations on the growing and testing of GMO products.

The local anti-GMO legislation has been struck down, but the judges’ decisions against home rule over GMOs are now being appealed in the Ninth Circuit in the case of Kauai and the Big Island.

“The state is responsible for assuring there is diversified agriculture,” Bronster said.

And that diversity includes large producers of GMO crops, she said. When the counties passed their bans and moratoriums, voices were loud but discussion was minimal, said Bronster, who contended to the room full of agricultural interests from around the nation that more meaningful, science-based dialogue is needed.

“People were loud and rude: the level of discourse was very low,” she said.

In an interview, Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille recalled 13 public hearings — some of them lasting all day — while the county grappled with and eventually passed her 2013 ordinance banning open-air cultivation of most GMO crops on the Big Island.

“The first hearing had 594 people who signed up to testify,” Wille said.

“I had thousands of emails and letters. We had a great deal of discussion.”

“She is saying things need to be science-based. Whose science?”

Bronster said the push by Hawaii’s counties is the tip of the iceberg, with GMO opponents around the nation poised to increasingly taking the fight to the local level.

“Think of the problems in states with hundreds of local jurisdictions,” she said. “State regulators could be faced with hundreds of different regulations.”

That’s enough to make the association’s members sit up and take notice, said Scott Enright, who is both the president of NASDA and chairman of the Hawaii Board of Agriculture. Rather than a balanced discussion of an issue they were already familiar within their home jurisdictions, the association’s secretaries, directors and commissioners were seeking specific information about the Hawaii cases, Enright said.

That’s because the cases could set a precedent for how things are handled in their own counties and municipalities, he said.

Hawaii County sought the partial GMO ban under home rule statutes that charge the county with protecting life, health and property, Wille said. At issue is the possibility of cross-pollination and genetically modified crops mixing into and permanently altering the genetics of non-GMO crops. The county is largely trying to protect the property of farmers who wish to grow crops without GMO contamination, she said.

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The county’s lawyers are gearing up with final briefs in their appeal of the Nov. 27 decision by U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Kurren that state law pre-empts the county’s ban.

“To me, the bottom line is: why are the counties and municipalities doing this? What is not right?” Wille said. “Because people come to the level of government that is closest to them and say, ‘the state isn’t protecting us; the feds aren’t protecting us.’ Regardless of what happens with these lawsuits, how do we protect all of those farmers who want to grow non-GMO?”

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