Environmentalists hail Hawaii biopharming ruling

A federal judge has ruled that a federal agency should not have allowed genetically modified crops to be planted in Hawaii without first determining their potential impact on endangered species or the environment — a ruling that, some say, sets a major precedent in the national battle over genetically-modified organisms, or GMOs. Local and national environmental groups had sued the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) after it gave permits to several companies hoping to investigate the medicinal applications of genetically-modified crops, known as biopharming, on Kauai, Maui, Molokai, and Oahu. The crops have already been harvested and the permits have expired, and in its response to the lawsuit, APHIS had asserted that the case had no merit because no protected species or habitat was actually harmed. In his ruling, however, U.S. District Judge J. Michael Seabright minced no words in blasting the government agency for shirking its duties. “APHIS’s utter disregard for this simple investigation requirement, especially given the extraordinary number of endangered and threatened plants and animals in Hawaii, constitutes an unequivocal violation of a clear congressional mandate.” Seabright also said the “no harm, no foul” defense was “absurd.”

From 2001 to 2003, four companies — ProdiGene, Monsanto, Garst Seed, and the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center (HARC) — planted corn and sugarcane that had been genetically modified to produce experimental drugs. The hope was to find new ways to fight AIDS, Hepatitis B, and cancer. They did so after receiving permits from APHIS.

The plaintiffs — KAHEA (the Hawaiian Environmental Alliance), the Center for Food Safety;
Friends of the Earth, and the Pesticide Action Network North America — asserted that that APHIS broke the law in issuing the permits since the agency is required to evaluate the crops’ environmental impact under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. The groups said that the experimental crops could have cross-pollinated with food crops or found their way into animal feed, and contaminate the food supply.

The court concluded that APHIS did indeed violate the law, and called for an Aug. 22 hearing to determine the next step.

Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff, who argued the case for the plaintiffs, said in a statement: “This decision shows that regulatory oversight of this out-of-control industry has been woefully inadequate. The agency entrusted with protecting human health and the environment from the impacts of genetic engineering experiments has been asleep at the wheel.”

In his ruling, Seabright wrote that procedural requirements are “always critically important,” but that they are “particularly crucial in Hawaii.”

“Hawaii is known not only for its remarkable landscape and beaches, but also for its considerable number of endangered and threatened species,” he wrote. “Hawaii has more endangered and threatened species than any other state, and Hawaii’s 329 listed species represent approximately twenty-five percent of all listed species in the United States.”

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