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Local Governments Can Prohibit GE Crops, Says U.S. Court of Appeals

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Local Governments Can Prohibit GE Crops, Says U.S. Court of Appeals

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued its decisions Friday on whether federal and Hawai'i state laws preempt Hawai'i counties' authority to regulate genetically engineered (GE) crops and pesticide use. Of significance to state and local communities throughout the U.S., the Ninth Circuit ruled that federal law—specifically, the Plant Protection Act—does not prohibit states and counties from passing local laws to regulate and ban commercially-grown GE crops.


"Today's decision to allow states and counties to ban or regulate GE crops is an important victory for GE-free seed sanctuaries and small communities and farmers around the country," George Kimbrell, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety, said.

In granting its decision the court recognized potential harm to farmers and environment from the widespread planting of GE crops, asserting, "the cultivation and testing of GE plants raise several well-documented concerns." Notably, the court affirmed, "transgenic contamination has previously caused significant economic impacts on farmers of conventional, non-GE crops."

The court acknowledged as well that "the cultivation of GE crops also may raise environmental concerns, such as harm to beneficial plants and animals caused by the increased use of pesticides sometimes associated with testing and growing GE crops, the proliferation of 'superweeds' and other pests resistant to pesticides, and the reduction of biodiversity." The court went on to declare: "The regulation of commercialized crops, both of GE and traditional varieties, remains within the authority of state and local governments."

At the same time, however, the court ruled that under Hawai'i law, counties and municipalities do not have the authority to regulate GE crops (as some in other states do), and that Hawai'i state law places such authority in the hands of the State alone.

"We're disappointed that the court misinterpreted Hawai'i law and concluded the Hawai'i legislature decided Hawai'i counties lack any such authority," Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff said. "The legislature did not, and the decision leaves Hawai'i unprotected from the harms the Ninth Circuit acknowledged. We believe that when Hawai'i's state courts have an opportunity, they will reject the Ninth Circuit's conclusion on this point and allow Hawai'i's people to protect themselves, since the State certainly hasn't protected them."

The court also ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) alone has the authority to regulate field trials and experimental GE crops; neither states nor local governments can ban or approve. This is particularly troubling to communities in Hawai'i, since the many field trials and associated pesticide use in Hawai'i poses significant risks to local citizens and the environment

"We are extremely disappointed with the ruling that some experimental GE field trials can only be regulated by USDA, and are considering all legal options. Most importantly, we continue to stand and fight with the people of Hawaiʻi against these chemical companies," Kimbrell said.

Attorneys with Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice, who represented local residents, conservation groups, and Hawai'i County in the proceedings, are analyzing the full scope of the court's decisions and will be considering options that would protect Hawai'i's people, farms and the environment.

"As a mother and a resident of Kekaha, Kauaʻi, I will continue to stand up and protect my family and my community," said Malia Kahale'ina Chun, a mother, educator and Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner. "It is our responsibility to insure that our keiki have access to clean air, clean water and to 'āina that sustains them."

A plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

California is bracing for rare January wildfires this week amid damaging Santa Ana winds coupled with unusually hot and dry winter weather.

High winds, gusting up to 80- to 90 miles per hour in some parts of the state, are expected to last through Wednesday evening. Nearly the entire state has been in a drought for months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, alongside summerlike temperatures, has left vegetation dry and flammable.

Utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, which serves the central and northern portions of the state, warned it may preemptively shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to reduce the risk of electrical fires sparked by trees and branches falling on live power lines. The rare January fire conditions come on the heels of the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California, as climate change exacerbates the factors causing fires to be more frequent and severe.

California is also experiencing the most severe surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with hospitals and ICUs over capacity and a stay-at-home order in place. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of adverse health effects due to COVID, and evacuations forcing people to crowd into shelters could further spread the virus.

As reported by AccuWeather:

In the atmosphere, air flows from high to low pressure. The setup into Wednesday is like having two giant atmospheric fans working as a team with one pulling and the other pushing the air in the same direction.
Normally, mountains to the north and east of Los Angeles would protect the downtown which sits in a basin. However, with the assistance of the offshore storm, there will be areas of gusty winds even in the L.A. Basin. The winds may get strong enough in parts of the basin to break tree limbs and lead to sporadic power outages and sparks that could ignite fires.
"Typically, Santa Ana winds stay out of downtown Los Angeles and the L.A. Basin, but this time, conditions may set up just right to bring 30- to 40-mph wind gusts even in those typically calm condition areas," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

For a deeper dive:

AP, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, New York Times, Slideshow: New York Times; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for daily Hot News, and visit their news site, Nexus Media News.

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