How Hawaii said no to GMOs

At the end of 2013, the archipelago’s main island became the largest area in the United States to ban genetically modified crops. The New York Times describes how it happened.

What do the Italian region of Veneto and Hawaii have in common? Not a lot at first sight, or even second for that matter. But a look at their agricultural policies reveals an unsuspected commonality between the paradise islands of the Pacific and the region in north-eastern Italy: they represent the front line of opposition to the use of GMOs in agriculture in their respective countries.

A couple of years ago, the Lega Nord (Northern League) political party submitted a proposal to make the Veneto Region a GMO-free area under law, to counter the (guarded) openness to the introduction of GMOs by the European Union. This is a subject that remains very dear to the heart of the Governor of the Veneto and former Minister of Agricultural Policy Luca Zaia.

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What was requested for the Veneto has become reality in the county of Hawaii, which covers the largest island in the archipelago of the same name, and in turn gives its name to the US state. The County Council approved a law banning the introduction of any new GMO variety on the island: the only exception (we will shortly see why) is a modified papaya variety that has already been cultivated in the area for several years. Four small Californian counties (Mendocino, Trinity, Marin and Santa Cruz) have previously introduced similar bans, but Hawaii is now becoming the largest GMO-free area in the United States.

In a long, detailed article, the New York Times described the discussions around the Hawaiian law, from the initial proposal submitted to the County Council last May up to its approval in December. The article is by Amy Harmon, one of the most prestigious science writers at the New York Times and winner of two Pulitzer prizes.

Who is growing what in Hawaii

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To understand how Hawaii has become the front line in the debate on GMOs in the United States, we need to take a step back. Compared to other areas in the US, agriculture does not have significant weight in the islands’ economy: the endless space required for the intensive corn and soy crops that make the fortune of the Midwest states is lacking, the domestic market is small, and the distance from the rest of the country limits exports.

However, the year-round temperate climate and the fertile volcanic soil would delight any farmer. Small and medium-sized agricultural businesses grow coffee, sugar cane, pineapples, papaya and macadamia nuts, all primarily intended for costly exports. Beekeeping is also very important: the islands export both honey and live bees in large quantities. In short, “Made in Hawaii” is a mark of quality. Many celebrities (such as Oprah Winfrey) have actually invested in buying land in Hawaii for organic farming.

However, the climate and land in Hawaii also attract large biotechnology and agrochemical companies such as Dupont, Monsanto and Syngenta, which have come to these islands for years to test new seed varieties before putting them on the market: The problem particularly affects the islands of Kauai and Maui, but so far not Hawaii, the largest island (not now or in the future either, at this point).

Not long ago, the County of Kauai imposed strict limits on GMO crops, although without going as far as banning them: It notably imposed safety zones around schools and public parks, and asked anyone sowing GMOs to document exactly what they were growing, where, and using which pesticides. The big companies have submitted an appeal that is still under examination, complaining that revealing the location of their fields would expose them to risks of “industrial espionage, vandalism and theft”.

The island of Hawaii’s measure goes further, aiming to stop the introduction of any new GMO variety onto the island so as to prevent it being used as a testing ground.

Facts and opinions

The title of the New York Times invokes a “lonely quest for facts on genetically modified crops”. The quest in question belonged to Greggor Ilagan, the 27-year-old County Council member from whose point of view the whole story is told. Ilagan is one of the three Council members (out of nine) who voted against the ban on GMOs, in spite of a large majority of public opinion in favour – starting with Ilagan’s constituents, who bombarded his Facebook page and repeatedly stopped him in the street to ask him to support the motion.

Ilagan tells the paper that when he first looked at the issue, he barely knew what GMOs were. In the months that followed, he tried to find out about the scientific aspects as well as the economic ones, and discovered how difficult it was to discern reliable information, and how intricate the web of interests both for and against GMOs was.

““He often despaired of assembling the information he needed to make a decision. Every time he answered one question, new ones arose. Popular opinion masqueraded as science, and the science itself was hard to grasp. There were people who spoke as experts but lacked credentials, and GMO critics attacked those with credentials, considering them to be pawns of biotechnology companies. “It takes so much time to find out what’s true,” he explained.

Ilagan knew that the person who proposed the ban (Margaret Wille, a sort of council member responsible for agriculture for the county) only had the inhabitants’ interests at heart. Having seen the biotechnology companies at work on the other islands, she wanted to avoid them “taking over” Hawaii too. “If you control the seed, you control the food; if you control the food, you control the people,” she explained to her colleagues on the Council. “My concern is protecting our soil and the farms and properties that do not grow GMOs,” Wille said, and emphasised the existence of market spaces for non-GMO products.

In the article, Ilagan told the New York Times that he shared his constituents’ scepticism towards the big multinationals, and had good reason to think that they were more interested in profit than in public safety. And that he would prefer “more healthful food grown more sustainably”.

 “But even a national ban on GMO crops, it seemed to him, would do little to solve the problems of an industrial food system that existed long before their invention. Nor would it diminish the power of these companies, which also dominate the market in seeds that are not genetically modified, and the market in pesticides used on both. The arguments for rejecting GMOs, he concluded, ultimately relied on the premise that they are unsafe. Making up his mind about that alone was difficult enough.”

For example, the article says, one of the arguments most commonly advanced by the ban’s supporters was a French study by researcher Gilles-Éric Séralini, which reported that rats fed with GMO corn tended to develop tumours. But shortly after publication, the study was discredited by virtually the entire scientific community, leaving Ilagan in doubt. “For the first time in his political career, he was considering voting ‘kanalua’, a Hawaiian word that means ‘yes, but with reservation’.” (The New York Times does not say so, but Séralini’s study was later withdrawn, amid considerable controversy, by the journal that published it, which had reanalysed the data and found it inadequate.)

The case of the Rainbow papaya

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The famous (to the experts, at least) Rainbow papaya also ended up involved in the debate:: a papaya variety genetically modified to resist a virus that seriously threatened the fruit with extinction at the end of the 1990s. The story of this papaya is often given as an example of the fact that not all GMOs are the same, and that alongside the big multinationals’ intensive cultivation projects, there are also publicly funded projects (the Rainbow papaya project was sponsored by a consortium of universities, obviously including the University of Hawaii) to support small farming. The Rainbow papaya now accounts for three quarters of papaya production in Hawaii (30 million tonnes per year). A ban on growing it would have brought most of the island’s 200 papaya growers to their knees, so they had asked to be exempt from the ban from the very beginning. But even here the debate has seen tension, one example being when actress Roseanne Barr (another celebrity who has moved to the archipelago and now focuses on organic farming) said to them: “Everybody here is very giving. They will bend over backwards to help you burn those papayas and grow something decent.”

In the end, the anti-GMO ban was passed, after a lively public meeting in which there were five times more people in favour of the ban than against. Their main concern, says the New York Times, was to keep Hawaii the way the world sees it: as an intact natural oasis. “Our island can become an uncontaminated seedbed available to the whole world,” is the emblematic phrase said by one participant. The law prohibits the introduction of new varieties but not the continued use of existing crops: papaya growers are exempt from the ban but must pay to join a special register.

Either side of the Atlantic

There are at least two interesting points in the story, from Europe’s point of view. One is that the GMO debate in the US is less monolithic than you might think: even in the country most invested in this type of agriculture, there are major regional differences, and there is a segment of public opinion that is anything but well disposed to GMOs. It is also true that there is a tug of war under way, this time at national level, to require GMOs to be indicated on labels (not currently the case).

The second interesting point is that this is taking place in what is in some ways the most “Mediterranean” state in the US: a place that earns its living from tourism and the land, with agriculture that is more interested in protecting high quality brands and traditional products than in promoting large-scale intensive crops. It is perhaps no accident that the debate on GMOs there has ended up closely resembling the European one, and the Italian one in particular.

The full New York Times article

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