Another Hawaiian Island Gives Biotech the Boot

The Big Island is the latest county to ban GMOs.

GMO hawaii

Pineapple fields in Maui, Hawaii. (Photo: Bob Abraham/Getty Images)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Rare is the opportunity to compare Hawaii to Iowa, but when it comes to farming, the two otherwise disparate states have a common crop: seed corn.

Unlike Iowa, however, local government in the Aloha State is pushing back against Big Corn. Yesterday, the Big Island’s Mayor Billy Kenoi became the latest politician to take a policy stand against the growing presence of agribusiness in the state.

Located 2,470 miles from the mainland, the tropics of Hawaii bring to mind exotic fruits like guavas and pineapples and fields of towering sugarcane. Though tropical fruits have long played a key role in the archipelago’s agriculture—an industry that claims close to 2 million acres, or half of the state—farming in Hawaii has been changing in recent years. Coffee, macadamia nuts, beef, and sugarcane now trail seed crops—namely, genetically modified seed corn—as the state’s top agricultural product. The 2011 value of Big Corn: $242,970,000.

The expanse of biotechnology on the isolated islands—GMOs also dominate the papaya industry, which was nearly wiped out by papaya ringspot virus in the 1990s—has led to increasingly divisive clashes between biotech, farmers using GMOs, and Hawaii’s sizable environmentalist population. Last month the Kauai County Council overrode the veto of Mayor Bernard Carvalho to pass a GMO ban on the island. Now the Big Island is following suit, with Mayor Kenoi signing into law Bill 113, which will block biotech companies from operating on the state’s largest island.

“Our community has a deep connection and respect for our land, and we all understand we must protect our island and preserve our precious natural resources,” Kenoi wrote in a letter to the Hawai’i County Council. “We are determined to do what is right for the land because this place is unlike any other in the world. With this new ordinance we are conveying that instead of global agribusiness corporations, we want to encourage and support community-based farming and ranching.”

Not mentioned in the letter, which calls for all farmers to be treated with “respect and aloha,” is that papaya farmers, the majority of whom grow the transgene Rainbow papaya, will be exempted.

An earlier version of the bill would have required farmers to rip out their trees within 30 months or face fines of $1,000 per day and a 30-day jail sentence for violating the GMO ban. The hybrid, however, was developed by breeders at Cornell and University of Hawaii, with support of the Department of Agriculture. While Monsanto holds a patent on the technology, it's licensed to the Papaya Administrative Committee, which sells seeds to growers at cost. If your problem with GMOs lies with the business model that supports them, as Kenoi's appears to be, the Rainbow papaya is not the enemy. 

In 2011, papayas were Hawaii's eighth most valuable crop, worth nearly $10 million.

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