The battle over GMO seed farms in Hawaii

Seeds are Hawaii’s largest agricultural product Photo: Ada Be, Flickr

WASHINGTON, October 21, 2013—The battle over GMO seed farms is heating up in Hawaii, concentrating on the island of Kauai. Residents of the Garden Isle are taking on biotech companies in the latest battleground in the war over genetically modified crops.

Previously known for its sugar and pineapple fields—gradually abandoned because of cheaper international competition—Hawaii has become a major center for genetically modified crop development in the last two decades.

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Lured by the ideal weather and inexpensive land, major global biotech companies moved a significant part of their research operations to the islands. In fact, Pioneer (a DuPont subsidiary), BASF, Syngenta, Dow and Monsanto occupy a combined 25,000 acres of agricultural land in the state.

Biotechs don’t produce edible crops in Hawaii, however; they produce seeds. Most of the seeds developed, tested and produced on the islands are genetically modified corn, which are shipped to the mainland to be reproduced and subsequently sold to farmers. Indeed, seeds are Hawaii’s largest agricultural product.

The biotech industry in Hawaii, according to its own data, is valued at $264 million a year and employs 1,400 Hawaiians, reports the New York Times. They operate on the islands of Kauai, Oahu, Maui, and Molokai.

However, not all Hawaiians are embracing this new kind of farming. Many have sued the companies and others have successfully rallied to pass a major bill in Kauai that tightens rules for seed growers.   

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The island of Kauai, known as the Garden Isle, is a major center of seed production, with nearly 12,000 acres dedicated to seed growing.

For decades, the residents of Waimea, in southwestern Kauai, have complained about the dust and pesticides blowing into their towns and homes from the nearby fields owned by the seed giants. Nevertheless, the biotechs have for years refused to reveal what they are growing, and more importantly, what pesticides are being used, when, and in what quantities.

Several local physicians have anecdotal evidence of observing higher levels of cancer, asthma and birth defects in residents of Waimea over past 15 years. While not blaming the higher rates on pesticides, doctors complain that the companies’ refusal to disclose what kind of pesticides are being used makes it nearly impossible to establish whether pesticides are responsible for the high rates of illness they see in residents.

A recent lawsuit involving 150 residents alleges that Pioneer used the fields around Waimea to conduct open air testing of GMO crops and practices poor soil conservation that has led to the migration of dust and pesticides, creating a health hazard for the nearby community, according to a recent court order relating to the case.

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Additionally, in what many are calling a large blow to seed producers, local lawmakers approved a bill last week that will require more disclosure by and oversight of the seed industry after thousands of Kauai’s residents demonstrated and attended county council hearings.

The bill establishes buffer zones around schools, hospitals and waterways, and requires companies to disclose pesticide use if more than 15 gallons of restricted use pesticides are used annually, according to a report by local Hawaii News Now. Restricted use pesticides are pesticides regulated by the E.P.A. that require special licensing.

Seed companies have vowed to fight the legislation, questioning its legality and the factual basis for the claims that pesticides are making the people of Waimea sick. One DuPont spokesperson stated that the company is considering legal options to block the bill, according to a report by Reuters.

“We’re disappointed. We recognize that the most onerous, anti-GMO provisions were removed from the bill, but we still maintain that the county really lacks the resources and the expertise for enforcement and administration of pesticide laws,” Alicia Maluafiti, Executive Director of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, told Hawaii News Now.

The Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, representing seed companies, points to a study by the Hawaiian Department of Health revealing no elevated cancer rates in Kauai and other tests that show safe water and air samples.

Spokespersons for the companies have repeatedly stated that pesticides are only used when necessary and, when used, employees follow all federal and manufacturer guidelines to prevent human and environmental exposure, including strict measuring and accounting for wind and local weather patterns.

“Probably the first people in the community that would get sick would be our workers,” said Mark Phillipson, Syngenta executive and president of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, to PBS. “And there’s no indication of that.”

Much of the community’s anger centers on the seed growers’ refusal to disclose what kind of pesticides are being used, when and in what quantities. The companies involved say they do not reveal what kind of pesticides they apply because it could make them less competitive.

As the largest employers on the west side of the island, some biotechs commented to PBS that the new bill’s requirements may force them off the island and threaten the jobs of thousands of residents. 

Seed farm workers appear to largely support their employers, showing up at the council meetings and demonstrations in huge numbers. Many argue that the pesticides used on seed farms in Hawaii are the same as used on farms in the Midwest.

However, residents of the island are concerned. They want to know what is being grown and what is being sprayed close to their homes and schools. Many argue that seed farming and GMO development is quite different from traditional farming and requires special rules and oversight.

“Because seed crops are considered to be a non-food item, seed growers are allowed to use more pesticides, and to use them more extensively, than they would be allowed to use, for the production of edible crops,” writes Hector Valenzuela, Professor and Crop Specialist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, in Honolulu Civil Beat, a local news outlet. “This may partly explain why the GM seed industry uses over 90 percent of the 22 ‘Restricted Use Pesticides’ that are used on farms in Kauai.”

Additionally, because Hawaii’s weather allows for three growing seasons instead of one—the main reason biotech companies are in Hawaii in the first place—there is more spraying of pesticides throughout the year. According to Valenzuela, pesticides are applied at the rate of 10 to 40 applications per day, 250 days a year on Kauai’s GM seed farms. 

Mayor Bernard Carvalho, Jr. has 10 days from its passing to sign or veto the bill.

“Veto is not a consideration,” Mayor Carvalho said to Hawaii News Now. “I would like to look at the bill and see how we can really work it out, but my final decision will only be after I look at the final draft and I get the county attorney’s opinion,”

If the bill is indeed signed, it will take effect in nine months.


READ MORE: A World in Our Backyard by Laura Sesana

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Laura Sesana

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, Maryland attorney, joining the Communities in 2012.  She is the author of Colombia: Natural Parks, and has also written several articles on literary criticism.  She writes about food, health, nutrition, women’s legal issues, and the environment.  

In addition to writing for the Communities, Laura also works as an attorney and legal content writer.


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