As the state Legislature hammers out the final details of a bill banning genetically modified (GM) taro, events are unfolding at the national level that could render moot the contentious local debate over altering a plant that many Hawaiians consider sacred.

About three-quarters of Hawaii’s taro crop is grown on Kauai, with an estimated 40 percent of the state’s total taro yield pulled from the Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge on the island’s North Shore, according to federal documents.

But following a judge’s ruling last month that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated national laws by failing to properly assess the environmental impacts of growing Monsanto’s Roundup Ready corn at its Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware, cultivation of GM crops in the refuge system is now under scrutiny.

If GM crops are banned on refuges, it could kill the local market for GM taro. Rodney Haraguchi, the state’s largest taro grower and an outspoken advocate of GM taro, farms in the Hanalei Wildlife Refuge. A number of Kauai farmers outside the refuge oppose GM taro.

In a suit brought by the Audubon Society, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Center for Food Safety, U.S. District Judge Gregory Sleet noted that the Service did “not contest that their own biologists determined that these activities posed significant environmental risks to Prime Hook, including biological contamination, increased weed resistance and damage to soils.”

PEER filed suit after refuge biologists claimed their environmental concerns were overridden by refuge managers “who were under political pressure by farmers to grow GM crops,” said Jeff Ruch, the organization’s executive director.

“We certainly are going to consider the whole use of GM crops issue,” said Andy Loranger, chief of the division of natural resources and conservation planning for the refuge system. “Whether this results in long term implications for policy changes is just too early to say.”

But Ruch said it will be impossible for the Service to justify cultivation of GM crops under its own policy, which states they cannot be grown unless it determines their use is essential to accomplishing refuge purposes (primarily, maintaining biological integrity and diversity and environmental health).PEER plans to push the issue by filing another four to six lawsuits targeting mainland refuges.

Loranger said the Service is conducting a “data call” to learn the current status of GM crops in refuges, saying its data is six or seven years old. “We need make sure we are in compliance nationwide and ascertain where that might not be the case and make any adjustments if necessary,” he said.

“It shouldn’t take a data call to find out how often this extraordinary finding is being made,” Ruch said, noting that the Service shifted decision-making authority to the regional level after the suit was filed. Ruch said the policy change was an attempt to make the approvals appear routine.

About 120,000 acres of refuge land are under cultivation, Ruch said, “and the vast majority is GM and that percentage is growing.”

The group has a larger goal than targeting just GM crops, Ruch said. “We’re hoping to eliminate all inappropriate agriculture and that will likely shrink the amount of agriculture on refuges by 75 to 80 percent.” He said taro appears to be a compatible use for the Hanalei refuge because it supports habitat for endangered water birds.

Service spokeswoman Barbara Maxfield said Hanalei is the only Hawaii refuge where crops are being grown, and the farming issue there will be addressed during the comprehensive conservation planning process set for later this year.