Hawaii has long been considered "ground zero" for the debate over genetically modified organisms, but now one county is taking on big biotech in an unprecedented way.
On Nov. 4, residents of Maui County (which includes Maui, Molokai and Lanai islands) will vote on whether to place an immediate moratorium on all genetically modified farming in the county.
Kauai and Hawaii counties already passed regulations on the agricultural biotechnology industry last year, but if the Maui initiative passes, it would be the most restrictive law against biotech in the state.
The Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and the Aina (or SHAKA) Movement submitted the moratorium to the Maui County Council earlier this year. The movement collected 9,062 valid signatures to get it added to the ballot; it represents the county’s first-ever citizen-initiated bill.
If passed, SHAKA’s moratorium would be in effect until Maui County conducts an environmental and public health analysis of genetically engineered crops. The bill would also require biotech companies to fund the analysis.
Any business knowingly growing GMO crops during this time would be fined up to $50,000 per day.
Critics of the initiative argue that a moratorium would significantly hamper Maui County's economy.
Monsanto Co. and Mycogen Seeds, an affiliate of Dow AgroSciences, both currently operate farms on Molokai and Maui and employ about 600 people combined. State economists have projected that if the bill passes and all employees are laid off, Maui’s unemployment rate would rise from 4.7 to 5.5 percent.
SHAKA argues, “There is no need for job loss as these companies can switch back to non-GMO seed crop production.” But Mycogen Seeds, which farms GMO crops on 80 percent of its farms, told Honolulu Civil Beat that “it may ultimately lead us to seriously consider shutting down our operations on Molokai.”
Pro-GMO and anti-GMO groups agree on one thing, however: The wording of the ballot measure is totally confusing. It reads:
MAUI: Voter Initiative: Genetically Engineered Organisms
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the cultivation or reproduction of genetically engineered organisms within the County of Maui, which may be amended or repealed as to a specific person or entity when required environmental and public health impact studies, public hearings, a two thirds vote and a determination by the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?