By: Manolo Morales

The challenge to overturn Maui’s ban on genetically modified organisms heads to federal court at the end of the month.

A hearing is set for March 31.

Monsanto and other companies want the ban to be ruled illegal despite voters approving it last November.


In the general election, in a close vote of 51-to-49 percent, Maui residents approved a referendum to ban genetically modified organisms in the county.


But a lawsuit has blocked the ban from taking effect. Maui County voters may be wondering why the ban is in trouble after they went to the polls and passed it.


David Callies, a professor at University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law, says GMOs and the use of pesticides fall under state jurisdiction, so even though Maui residents voted in favor of the ban, the courts can block it because state law trumps county initiatives.


“The legislature granted the power to control most land use to the counties. This is not one of those that they passed on to the counties who knew before the court came down with this decision,” he said.


Callies says Kauai and Hawaii county councils passed similar bans and the federal court has overturned them for the same reason. Both cases have been sent to the 9th Circuit Court for an appeal.


Callies says it seems unlikely that the higher court will overturn and let the ban stick.


“The 9th Circuit tends to pay a lot of attention to the state’s interpretation of its own laws and so now that we have an interpretation that the regulation of genetically modified organisms and pesticides is a state issue. I think it’s unlikely to overturn that,” Callies said.


The Maui GMO ballot question helped bring voters out to the polls. Big money was also spent trying to sway voters.


Those voters may now be asking why they were asked to make a decision only to have it face legal challenges.


HPU professor and political analyst John Hart says yes, the votes still count, because they let state legislators know what the people want.


“They do know this is what the people on Maui want according to this vote, so if the legislature doesn’t do that, they do so at their peril,” Hart said.


There are currently two bills in the state legislature that can resolve this issue. One gives the county the power to decide over the state, the other gives the state power to ban GMOs.


Originally Published: KHON2