Agrobusiness giants take Kauai to court over bio-tech crop regulations

New island law requires large agricultural firms to declare bio-tech crops and establish buffer zones around schools, homes and hospitals

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 January, 2014, 11:29pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 January, 2014, 4:20am

Three of the world's largest agrochemical companies have taken legal action in Hawaii to block a law enacted on the island of Kauai in November to limit the planting of bio-tech crops and the use of pesticides.

DuPont, Syngenta and Agrigenetics, a company affiliated with the Dow AgroSciences unit of Dow Chemical, took the action on Friday in the United States district court in Honolulu. It claims the action in Kauai is unconstitutional and seeks an injunction permanently barring enforcement of provisions of the law.

"The ordinance is invalid," Paul Minehart, a spokesman for Syngenta, said. "It arbitrarily targets our industry with burdensome and baseless restrictions on farming operations by attempting to regulate activities over which counties in Hawaii have no jurisdiction.

These activities are already regulated by governmental agencies under state and federal laws."

The Kauai law requires large agricultural companies to disclose pesticide use and genetically modified (GM) crop plantings while establishing buffer zones around schools, homes and hospitals.

Kauai County councillor Gary Hooser, who co-introduced the bill in June, said the county was asking for basic disclosure and buffer zones and the big agrochemical companies were simply trying to bully islanders into submission.

The measure has broad support on the island and on the mainland US from organisations and individuals who say heavy pesticide use by the agrochemical companies is poisoning people and the environment.

"They chose to use their money and legal power to bully us in the courts," Hooser said. "These companies do not want our county to set a precedent that other communities are going to follow."

Similar action has been taken on the island of Maui. And in December, Hawaii Island signed into law a measure that prohibits biotech companies from growing any new genetically modified crops on that island.

The Hawaiian islands are a popular testing ground for biotech crops for many companies due to a favourable year-round climate.

Syngenta leases 1,200 hectares on Kauai, DuPont Pioneer leases about 2,000ha and Agrigenetics leases 1,400ha, according to the action the companies filed.

They grow a mix of seed crops, including corn, soybeans, canola and rice.

The temperate climate of Kauai gave the companies "the invaluable opportunity to triple or quadruple the pace of development of GM crops", and was "crucial" to the companies' success, the writ stated.

If the companies were forced to disclose the location of their biotech crop fields, they faced increased risk of "commercial espionage, vandalism, and theft", they claimed, adding that buffer zones would hurt them economically because they would lose land for seed production.

The battle in the Hawaiian islands over the development of bio-tech crops and related pesticide use is part of a larger dispute brewing in the US and several other countries.

Critics argue that genetically modified crops, first introduced in 1996, lead to increased pesticide use, environmental damage and health problems for people and animals.

The most popular biotech crops are corn and soybeans that have been genetically altered to make the plants tolerant of chemical herbicides and resist pest damage.

Many farmers say use of biotech crops improves production and field management.