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Judge Orders County to Stop Registering GMO Farmers

Posted March 7, 2014, 04:30 PM HST Updated July 9, 2014, 09:31 AM HST
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A lone anti-GMO protester stands outside Hilo's courthouse prior to the hearing today. Photo by Dave Smith.

Judge Greg Nakamura today issued a temporary restraining order blocking the county from requiring that farmers of genetically modified crops register with the county.

The TRO was granted during a hearing on a lawsuit filed this week challenging a new county law that prohibits farmers from growing new transgenic plants and requires those already growing GMO varieties to register their crops.

The law was passed by the County Council in November and signed into law by Mayor Billy Kenoi in December.

Under the law, farmers of existing GMO crops must register with the county Department of Research and Development the location of those crops and pay a $100 fee for each location. Those who fail to do so are subject to a fine of up to $1,000 per day.

The lawsuit filed Monday in 3rd Circuit Court by Honolulu attorney Margery Bronster argues that such disclosure requirements are invalid because they conflict with Hawaii’s Constitution and a number of state laws.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a farmer who grows a variety of papaya genetically engineered to resist the ringspot virus, a disease that devastated the Big Island papaya industry in the 1990s. Those papayas represent about 85% of the papaya crop grown on the Big Island, the lawsuit said.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit filed by Honolulu attorney Margery Bronster is listed under the pseudonym “John Doe.”

Circuit Court Judge Greg Nakamura. Photo by Dave Smith.

Circuit Court Judge Greg Nakamura. Photo by Dave Smith.

Those farming GMO papayas have expressed concern that providing information about the location of farms puts them at risk. Over the past several years, several GMO papaya farms in lower Puna have been the targets of broad vandalism attacks, none of which has been solved by police.

The lawsuit said the plaintiff has already been the victim of “intimidation and threatening behavior” by anti-GMO activists.

Apparently in response to those concerns, County Councilwoman Margaret Wille, who introduced the bill, amended the legislation prior to the initial vote to provide that the county would not make the registration information public.

In the lawsuit, Bronster argues that the county cannot guarantee the information would be kept confidential, especially if it became subject to a legal challenge.

During court proceedings today it was revealed that on Thursday, another plaintiff, a farmer named Ross Sibucau, was added to the case.

Bronster, speaking to the court by telephone because she said she was unavoidably out of the country, said Sibucau was added as a plaintiff because it wasn’t clear that “John Doe” would be able to participate in the court proceedings without his identity being divulged.

“These are farmers who really fear for their farms, for their plants and for their livelihood,” Bronster said. “These farmers stand to lose everything.”

Nakamura will hear arguments on the lawsuit’s request for an injunction invalidating the law’s disclosure requirements at a hearing on March 24.

***Updated Monday, March 10, to correct the spelling of the name of the second plaintiff.***

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