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GMO Moratorium Initiative Heard in Council

Proposed law would criminalize GMO agriculture in Maui County.

July 10, 2014
Susan Halas - Contributing Writer , Maui Weekly

The much-discussed genetically modified organism (GMO) moratorium initiative got its first hearing at the Maui County Council's Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee (PIA) on June 30. Nearly 100 Mauians lined up early outside council chambers to testify, and many more filled seats inside the chamber to listen. On Molokai, an estimated 200 were present. Their testimony was heard remotely. The written and oral testimony ran about two-to-one against the proposal that seeks to halt the operation of genetically modified agricultural operations in Maui County.

If adopted, the measure would ban the cultivation of genetically engineered (GE) seed crops, experimental GE test crops and extensive pesticide use, including the testing of experimental pesticides and their combinations in what the legislation asserts is "effectively, an outdoor laboratory."

It also provides stiff new penalties for violations. Proposed civil penalties range from $10,000 to $50,000 per day. It would also authorize additional criminal penalties of $2,000 and up to one year in prison or both for each offense (each day to be considered a separate offense). Additionally, it would allow entry onto violator's property and removal of GE organisms at the violator's expense.

Article Photos

Maui’s proposed GMO moratorium was heard for first time in the County Council chambers on June 30. It was standing room only.

The initiative sponsored by the SHAKA Movement is the first successful attempt to gather enough signatures to put proposed legislation directly to the public for a vote. (SHAKA is an acronym for "Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture of Keiki and the 'Aina.) On June 13, the County Clerk advised the council that the signature requirement had been met. According to the clerk, the council has 60 days from June 6 to consider it.

If the County Council does not pass the law as written, the legislation will appear on the November ballot and the voters of the county will decide the outcome. (See "GMO Moratorium Initiative FAQs sidebar at the end of this story.")

Have you read it?

Although the text was available with the petition, it is doubtful that many took the time to read it all 12 pages before they signed it. Others did not read it at all because they doubted that the signature requirement would be met. Even though more than 9,000 people signed the petition, the specific terms of the proposed law are only now becoming widely available. The charter (11.6.1) requires that copies of the proposed ordinance be published in a general circulation newspaper at least 45 days prior to submission to the voters and that it is available to voters at the polls.

The measure titled "A Bill Placing a Moratorium on the Cultivation of Genetically Engineered Organisms" is lengthy and contains many stipulations that would have a major impact on Maui agriculture--not just GMOs.

The premise of the proposed legislation is that genetically engineered operations and practices and associated use and testing of pesticides in Maui County are causing irreparable harm to the people, environment and "public trust resources." The legislation cites Hawai'i State Constitution (Article XI Section 1) and later defines these resources as "Hawai'i's natural beauty and all natural resources, including land, water, air, minerals [and] energy sources."

It raises objections to current practices on cultural heritage and environmental protection grounds, including pesticide concerns, regulatory issues and economic consideration. It also discusses "transgenic contamination." The proposal defines this term as the "contamination of agricultural products with GE organisms that can have a myriad of significant impacts." Additional sections discuss alleged risks to soil, water and air resources.

Citations of law

The framers cite the Hawai'i Revised Statutes (HRS) Section 46.15 (13), which gives the county the power to enact ordinance to protect, health, life and property. They also cite the Hawai'i State Constitution Article XI Sections 9 and 11 relating to a clean and healthful environment and preservation of natural resources held in trust by the state for the benefit of the people.

Another legal reference is the "precautionary principal" (Maine vs. Tayor, 477 US 131, 1986). It refers to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the state (of Maine) was not required "to sit idly by and wait until potentially irreversible environmental damage has occurred or until the scientific community agrees on what [the environmental risks] are or are not dangerous before it acts to avoid such consequences." The proposed ordinance says that comparable conditions exist on Maui.

The sponsors of the legislation write that they are exercising their "right to utilize the county initiative process to impose a moratorium on the propagation, cultivation raising or growing of GE organisms in Maui County" in order to protect residents, visitors and the environment from potentially hazardous health effects. It calls for a detailed environmental impact study of the alleged "harm" associated with GE operations and practices.

With a short list of exceptions, the proposals makes it unlawful for any person or entity to knowingly propagate, cultivate, raise, grow or test GMOs within the County of Maui until such time that the terms of the moratorium amendment or repeal section have been met.

A two-thirds vote of the County Council is required to revoke the moratorium. Additional terms also require review of environmental statements, and there are additional conditions stating that, if repealed, there will not be significant harm, and further, that "significant benefits" will result.

As for carrying out the provisions, the proposal would require that those affected by and seeking release from the temporary moratorium provide Maui County with the funding necessary to complete environmental and health impact studies.

Two-phase study required

The proposed legislation also calls for a two-phase study to address environmental and public health questions related to large-scale commercial agricultural entities that engage in GE operations and practices and associated pesticide use.

If the law is passed, the first phase of the study would begin in 90 days.

This segment requires setting up a group of scientists and health experts "free of GE industry ties and assisted by independent nonbiased professional consultants" to determine the scope of design of the study, followed by a 30-day public comment period. The committee's task would be to address multiple concerns, including transgenic contamination, pesticides associated with GE operation, pesticide air and dust, pesticide combinations, horizontal gene transfer (which is not defined in the proposed measure) and birth defects correlations.

The second phase calls for an 18-month period to actually conduct the study as designed by the committee, followed by a 90-day public comment period, with final data to be published on the county's Website.

Other than saying that those affected will be required to fund the two-phase study, the proposed legislation does not state how the program will be financed or how the impartial experts will be selected.

If adopted, the new language would be added to Chapter 20.39 of the Maui County Code.

The complete text of the proposed GMO moratorium can be downloaded in PDF format at

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GMO Moratorium Initiative FAQs

Q What is an initiative?

A In most circumstances the public elects legislators, and these lawmakers write and pass the laws.

But under certain circumstances, the public is able to legislate directly using the process called "initiative." An initiative is a way of putting a proposed law on the ballot and letting the voters decide directly whether to pass it or reject it.

Q Does Maui have the initiative process?

A Yes, Maui allows the initiative process (Article 11, County Charter), but prior to the proposed genetically modified organism moratorium initiative, no group had ever gathered the necessary number of signatures required to put any question on the ballot. The proposed GMO moratorium sponsored by the SHAKA Movement is a first for Maui. This is the first time this process of direct legislation has met the signature requirement on Maui.

Q How many signatures were required?

A The law requires 20 percent of the total number of registered voters in the most recent mayoral general election. (Sec. 11-3.2 County Charter)

Q How many valid signatures were required, and how many received?

A A total of 8,465 valid signatures were required. On June 13, 2014, the County Clerk certified 9,062 valid signatures were received--more than enough to begin the initiative process.

Q Is that all the signatures that were received?

A No, there were many more signatures received, but many were disqualified for a variety of reasons, including not being a registered voter, signed more than once, illegible signature, etc.

Q What happens next?

A The County Council hears the matter as proposed within 60 days. If the council fails to enact the measure without change, it goes to next general election ballot.

The first hearing on the GMO moratorium was in the Council's Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs (PIA) Committee on June 30, where it was received as County Communication No. 14-166.

A great many people testified for and against it both in person and by sending in written testimony to the committee. If the council passes the proposal, it becomes law. If the council does not pass it, the measure goes to the November ballot and Maui County voters decide whether or not to approve or reject it. (County Charter 11-6.1)

Q If it goes to the ballot, how will the votes be counted?

A If a majority of the qualified electors voting on a proposed ordinance vote in its favor, it shall be considered enacted upon certification of the election results. (Charter 11-7)

Q Where can I find the actual text of the proposal?

A The title is: "A Bill Placing a Moratorium on the Cultivation of Genetically Engineered Organism." It is downloadable as a PDF at

Q Is a synopsis available?

A See "GMO Moratorium Initiative Heard in Council" on the front page of this issue, which summarizes the contents of this proposed amendment to Chapter 20.39 of the Maui County Code.



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