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Hawaii Stands Firm in Biotech Battle

June 24, 2014
If you drove here in the 1990s, you would see nothing but dead papaya trees,” Hawaii resident Dennis Gonsalves told a newspaper reporter last summer. Gonsalves is a scientist and he is credited with helping to save Hawaii’s Papaya industry. Nearly decimated in the early 1990s by the ringspot virus, the livelihood of Hawaii’s papaya farmers was literally saved by biotechnology and the “Rainbow” papaya, which is genetically-engineered to resist the virus.

Rainbow papaya makes up about 77 percent of the crop now. So it’s difficult to believe that Hawaii – owing one of its iconic industries to genetic modification – would be ground zero for one of the largest wars against agricultural biotechnology.

Most of the world’s largest ag biotech companies have farms on the island where they can grow crop varieties year round, making Hawaii’s GMO seed industry worth millions of dollars and one that employs hundreds.

But recent action in the state will enforce new regulations on biotechnology and pesticide use. Hawaii County on the Big Island adopted a law banning the cultivation of genetically modified crops. And Maui County is also considering a potential ballot measure that would impose a temporary ban.

Although the Hawaii County ban exempts existing growers using the technology – such as most papaya and corn farmers – it’s the farmers that have been subjected to the worst of the warfare. Current growers of GMO are attacked with anti-farmer hate mail and other intimidation tactics while their businesses suffer and sales decline due to bad press.

Last fall, more than a hundred trees were cut down, valued at thousands of dollars. In 2011, about 10 acres of trees were cut down on three adjoining papaya farms. The year before, some 8,500 papaya trees were cut down. Some believed the incidents were the work of GMO protestors. The police never solved the cases.

The debate has grown so divisive, it made front page news of the New York Times. After a week-long fact-finding mission, science reporter Amy Harmon wrote “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops” in which she suggests that anti- GMO arguments often ignore science. Soon after the article’s publication in January of this year, the internet erupted with personal attacks against Amy from the anti-biotech community.

Despite fears for their own safety and with their future uncertain, Hawaii’s farmers have no other recourse but to stand up for their right to farm.
“In this era where shippers and processors are taking extra steps to ensure consumers know their products are free of genetically modified organisms, Hawaiian papaya growers are going the opposite direction,” writes Vicki Boyd in a recent issue of the Packer, a trade magazine for the produce industry. “In a move some might consider bold or possibly even heresy, the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association, Hilo, has taken out a two-page advertisement in the Hawaiian Airlines magazine discussing the nutrient-rich superfood and how genetic engineering helped save the industry.

“From the papaya perspective, we don’t have anything to hide,” said Eric Weinert, general manager of Hawaii’s Calavo Growers. “We have everything to be proud of, and let’s just say it proudly.”

Joni Kamiya, who grew up in a multi-generation farming family on the island of Oahu writes the Hawaii Farmers Daughter blog, a must-read for those wanting a local perspective.

A whole new generation of Hawaiian farmers is speaking out to reporters and policymakers about the importance of having freedom to farm. There is little doubt that the farmers themselves are trapped in the crossfire of a much larger battle, but one on which their future depends.