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Food

Local Governments Can Prohibit GE Crops, Says U.S. Court of Appeals

The court recognized potential harm to farmers and environment from the widespread planting of GE crops.

Genetically modified fruit
Photo Credit: wellphoto/Shutterstock

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued its decisions Friday on whether federal and Hawai'i state laws preempt Hawai'i counties' authority to regulate genetically engineered (GE) crops and pesticide use. Of significance to state and local communities throughout the U.S., the Ninth Circuit ruled that federal law—specifically, the Plant Protection Act—does not prohibit states and counties from passing local laws to regulate and ban commercially-grown GE crops.

"Today's decision to allow states and counties to ban or regulate GE crops is an important victory for GE-free seed sanctuaries and small communities and farmers around the country," George Kimbrell, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety, said.

In granting its decision the court recognized potential harm to farmers and environment from the widespread planting of GE crops, asserting, "the cultivation and testing of GE plants raise several well-documented concerns." Notably, the court affirmed, "transgenic contamination has previously caused significant economic impacts on farmers of conventional, non-GE crops."

The court acknowledged as well that "the cultivation of GE crops also may raise environmental concerns, such as harm to beneficial plants and animals caused by the increased use of pesticides sometimes associated with testing and growing GE crops, the proliferation of 'superweeds' and other pests resistant to pesticides, and the reduction of biodiversity." The court went on to declare: "The regulation of commercialized crops, both of GE and traditional varieties, remains within the authority of state and local governments."

At the same time, however, the court ruled that under Hawai'i law, counties and municipalities do not have the authority to regulate GE crops (as some in other states do), and that Hawai'i state law places such authority in the hands of the State alone.

"We're disappointed that the court misinterpreted Hawai'i law and concluded the Hawai'i legislature decided Hawai'i counties lack any such authority," Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff said. "The legislature did not, and the decision leaves Hawai'i unprotected from the harms the Ninth Circuit acknowledged. We believe that when Hawai'i's state courts have an opportunity, they will reject the Ninth Circuit's conclusion on this point and allow Hawai'i's people to protect themselves, since the State certainly hasn't protected them."

The court also ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) alone has the authority to regulate field trials and experimental GE crops; neither states nor local governments can ban or approve. This is particularly troubling to communities in Hawai'i, since the many field trials and associated pesticide use in Hawai'i poses significant risks to local citizens and the environment

"We are extremely disappointed with the ruling that some experimental GE field trials can only be regulated by USDA, and are considering all legal options. Most importantly, we continue to stand and fight with the people of Hawaiʻi against these chemical companies," Kimbrell said.

Attorneys with Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice, who represented local residents, conservation groups, and Hawai'i County in the proceedings, are analyzing the full scope of the court's decisions and will be considering options that would protect Hawai'i's people, farms and the environment.

"As a mother and a resident of Kekaha, Kauaʻi, I will continue to stand up and protect my family and my community," said Malia Kahale'ina Chun, a mother, educator and Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner. "It is our responsibility to insure that our keiki have access to clean air, clean water and to 'āina that sustains them."

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