Cover Story

GMO labeling coalition members protest outside Monsanto’s Kunia fields last summer.
Image: tiffany hervey

GMO Transparency

In an election year, citizens’ right to know not only what’s in our food, but whether our candidates took biotech money, is a crucial issue in Hawai‘i, where so many GE crops are grown.

Taking control of Hawaii’s food supply is not an issue pitting hippies and liberals against economic progress. Rather, it is about understanding how the agrichemical farm industry seeks to control our food system by keeping us in the dark as to what, exactly, is in our food and being released into our environment.


Genetically modified organisms (GMOs),are produced by genetic engineering (GE), the splicing of genes from one species into those of another. These are not combinations that can happen in nature. If anything, the industry has evolved to permit the use of food as a weapon for ignorance and oppression. The antidote is for our citizenry to understand how the plantation agricultural system is still in place and why, so that we can evolve beyond it.

After the illegal overthrow and military annexation of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the foreign elite that came to power discouraged small farming by sabotaging land reform measures and monopolizing Ag land for mono-crop plantations.

Non-food crops

As sugar and pineapple closed down, agrichemical companies like Monsanto, Syngenta and Pioneer Hi-Bred (owned by DuPont) bought most of the high quality farmland in Kunia and the North Shore because they had the money to outbid independent Hawaii farmers, says Al Santoro, the recently retired owner of Poamoho Organic Produce in Waialua. “Pioneer even bought some Dole land that had a producing mango orchard and cut down the trees to plant [GE] corn seed,” Santoro recalls. “So now they have converted a local food crop to a non-food, export crop.”

While local agriculture’s diverse sectors (organic and conventional food crops, biofuels, nursery, ranching, biotech), all must compete for the same limited resources, biotech has floated to the top. “Our government has not prioritized Ag resources in line with the State’s goals of food sustainability,” Santoro says.

From 1980 to 2008, land in crops on Oahu declined by about 36,900 acres (77 percent) due to the closure of sugarcane and pineapple plantations, according to a 2011 report prepared by Plasch Econ Pacific LLC for Honolulu’s Department of Planning and Permitting. The report, Oahu Agriculture: Situation, Outlook and Issues, highlights that from 1994 to 1999, acreage in vegetables, melons, and fruits other than pineapple actually increased by about 4,600 acres on Oahu. Unfortunately, this gain was then followed by a 1,700-acre decline during the past decade.

This decline parallels GE seed companies’ replacing sugar and pineapple companies as the largest users of farmland on Oahu in the last decade. GE companies like Monsanto are the highest bidders for farmland, according to the report, which goes on to state that, since 1990, seed crops have been Hawaii’s greatest agricultural success, with statewide acreage increasing at an average rate of over 300 acres per year. Oahu, home to some of the highest quality farmland in the state, predominantly produces major export crops of seeds and ornamentals.

In a nutshell: Most of the land that could be used to grow food is used to produce non-edible exports.

Sidestepping the local economy

While the 10 million pounds of GE seed corn grown in Hawaii annually is valued at approximately $250 million a year, that doesn’t mean our local economy profits.

“In the case of the GMO corn seed companies none, zero, not any of that value is spent in the local economy,” Santoro explains. “No excise taxes are collected, nor state income taxes, because the farm product is not sold in Hawaii, but sent back to mainland research facilities.” The principal contribution Monsanto makes to the local economy is the hiring of workers, usually low-paid field hands, while the holders of high paying jobs, like Vice President Fred Perlak, are from the mainland.

“Because these [biotech] companies are treated as ‘farmers’ they get away with so much unregulated,” says GMO labeling activist Walter Ritte, citing the example of Molokai. “Monsanto is the largest employer on our island, largest land user, largest water user. But Monsanto produces nothing we can eat. They control the Chamber of Commerce; give money to our schools and clubs. We have to stop calling them farmers.”

Purchased policy

A majority of current House and Senate legislators received campaign donations directly from the biotech companies operating in Hawaii, as well as from their lobbyists,during the 2010 election cycle. Monsanto directly gave $34,750 directly to state legislators, according to data compiled by [followthemoney.org] from the Hawaii Elections Project and the state’s Campaign Spending Commission (CSC). Monsanto lobbyists John H. Radcliffe and George “Red” Morris gave totals of $43,591 and $13,750, respectively, to legislators (see sidebar, right).

Following the money to audit local lawmakers’ loyalties isn’t easy. Dow Chemical is not listed under “Agriculture,” like Monsanto, but hidden instead as “General Business (Chemical & Related Manufacturing)” industry. Loihi Communications, owned by Alicia Maluafiti, a Monsanto lobbyist, is registered with the state as a lobbying company, but cannot be found under “Lawyers & Lobbyists.” Instead, it’s listed in the “Uncoded” section. Maluafiti is also executive director of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, of which Monsanto Hawaii VP Fred Perlak is president.

According to records filed with the CSC for the 2010 election period, Gov. Neil Abercrombie received $1,000 from Monsanto, $300 from Alicia Mulafiti/Loihi Communications, and $600 from Dow Chemical. Additional records listed on [followthemoney.org] show Abercrombie receiving $1,000 from Monsanto Hawaii VP Fred Perlak, and $6,000 each from Monsanto lobbyists George A “Red” Morris and John H. Radcliffe.

Right to know

About 90 percent of all soybeans, corn, canola and sugar beets grown in the U.S. are grown from GE seed, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (DOA). FDA guidelines state that food containing GMOs doesn’t have to be labeled as such and can even be labeled “all natural.”

Common ingredients like corn, vegetable oil, maltodextrin, soy protein, lecithin, monosodium glutamate, cornstarch, yeast extract, sugar and corn syrup are commonly produced from GE crops. It follows that most processed foods–breakfast cereal, granola bars, tortilla chips, salad dressing–contain one or more genetically modified ingredient. In the absence of long-term studies of the human health effects of GMOs in food, many consumers are wary.

But safe or not, people just have a right to know what’s in their food, Ritte says. “Labeling is symbolic of the whole basis of our democratic system,” Ritte says. “We have the right to know and to choose. Our lawmakers say what they stand for,and label themselves with a party. We have to be able to do that with the food we put in our bodies.”

Label debate

All Hawaii counties outside Oahu have voted in favor of GMO labeling bills. Twelve GMO labeling bills were presented at the Hawaii State Legislature in 2012, and none made it to a vote. On May 9, the Honolulu City Council voted in favor of Resolution 12-57, introduced by Tulsi Gabbard, which pushes for state and federal labeling of food containing GMOs.“This resolution is really about freedom and the consumer’s right to make informed choices,” Gabbard stated.

Council Chair Ernie Martin disagrees, saying that labeling would cause an increase in food prices. “A Honolulu City Council resolution urging the Hawaii State Legislature to require a labeling requirement has little chance of producing the desired outcome,” Martin explained in an email.

“Current food processing, transportation and storage do not lend [themselves] to the simple separation of GE and non-GE foods. Labeling would most certainly increase the cost of food to all local consumers,” the councilman wrote, adding that those wanting non-GM food “already have an option in organic [which is required to be GMO-free].” Last election, Martin received $250 from Monsanto, $500 from VP Fred Perlak and a total of $5,000 from lobbyists Maluafiti, Radcliffe and Morris, according to records filed with the CSC.

Fed bedfellows

An FDA commitment to labeling is unlikely, given the agency’s close ties to biotech companies.

“There was a hijacking of the FDA when Monsanto’s former attorney Michael Taylor was in charge,” explains Jeffrey M. Smith, director of the Institute for Responsible Technology and author of Seeds of Deception and Genetic Roulette, which link GMOs to toxins, allergies, infertility, immune dysfunction and more.

A former Monsanto attorney, Taylor filled the newly created post of Deputy Commissioner for Policy at the FDA in 1991, became Administrator of the Food Safety & Inspection Service for the USDA from 1994 to 1996, then returned to Monsanto to become Vice President for Public Policy. In 2009, he returned to the FDA as senior advisor to the FDA Commissioner, and since 2010, as FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods, he has reigned as US food safety czar.

“[Taylor] ignored the repeated warnings of FDA scientists who were concerned about health dangers and demanded long-term studies,” Smith explained in a phone interview. “According to 44,000 secret internal documents from the FDA files made public, the consensus among the scientists was that GMOs were dangerous, but the person in charge of policy was Michael Taylor… His policy ignored the scientists, claimed that there was no difference and that no testing was necessary.”

Farm Bureau bunk

Looking at the sector breakdown of Hawaii’s 2010 election cycle, the top contributors to candidates highlight another giant hurdle in the way of food security: urban sprawl. The biggest campaign funders were the finance, insurance and real estate sector, which gave $2,409,219 to legislators, and the construction industry, which gave $1,685,246.

A recent broadcast of PBS Hawaii’s “Insights” hosted a discussion between Dr. Kioni Dudley of Save Oahu Farmlands Alliance, Glenn Martinez of the Hawaii Farmers Union, Cameron Nekota of developer DH Horton Schuller, and Dean Okimoto, owner of Nalo Farms and Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation president. The four debated over Hoopili, a housing development that would drop 11,750 houses on top of 1,500 acres of productive farmland.

Farm Bureau president Okimoto spoke in support of rezoning the farmland for development. “We planned this for 30 years and we’re always saying the city should take the time to plan better,” he argued. “This is the first time the city and state has planned and now we’re dissing them.”

Dudley countered that no one was aware in the ‘70s, when the idea for this community began, that the land below the freeway was so valuable to Hawaii’s food supply. “It was all pineapple,” Dudley explained. “We just drew the line because of the freeway. Even in 2009, no one realized…we get 30 percent of our fruits and vegetables [for local consumption] from that land.”

Jeffrey Smith says that, on a visit to Hawaii, he learned that the Hawaii Department of Agriculture (DOA) doesn’t require testing to determine whether food crops have been contaminated by pollen drift from biotech research crops. “The biotech industry claim that their small buffer zones protect against contamination is especially laughable in Hawaii and to Hawaiians. who know that seeds travel far and wide,” Smith relates.

Smith points out that the biotech companies operating in Hawaii do not offer any plan for how to deal with seed and crop movement in case of hurricanes or flooding where GMOs may be carried out of their boundaries; and there’s no insurance policy against resulting damage that could occur to the environment, the economy or health.

“[The HDOA] has none of the tools necessary to protect the land and the people,” Smith says. “So companies like Monsanto completely call the shots and will never be held accountable.”

Food as weapon

Coined during the Vietnam War, in which chemicals such as Monsanto’s Agent Orange (dioxin) herbicide were used, the term “food as weapon” has been adopted by physicist and author Vandana Shiva. According to Shiva, the growth of biotech agribusiness in the U.S. goes hand-in-hand with U.S. foreign policy to deliberately create hunger in order to make the world dependent on our food supplies.

More than 40 countries, including Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand, the European Union, South Korea and Taiwan, already require some form of labeling for GE foods. Several counties in California have banned the planting of GMOs, either through ballot initiative or county ordinance. Colorado’s Boulder County is planning to phase out or strictly limit the planting of GE crops by farmers who lease land on 16,000 acres owned by Boulder County Parks and Open Space. The Parks and Open Space Advisory Committee voted in support of their Food and Agriculture Policy Council’s recommendation to phase out the planting of any further GMO crops like corn or sugar beets, which had been grown on some of the land during the last decade.

Hawaii has a tricky situation, because so much of our land is privatized. Today’s major Ag landowners have ties to the same estates or Big Five companies that owned the pineapple and sugar plantations. Appealing to lawmakers and landowners that are paid well by biotech companies might seem like a losing battle; however, there are still actions an informed citizenry can make in an effort for a healthier, more food self-sufficient Hawai’i. The power is and always lies with the people, who can hold our lawmakers accountable by demanding to know their positions in the upcoming elections, and voting for City Council, mayoral and State Leg. candidates who are pro-labeling and against rezoning Ag lands for development. Hawaii’s agriculture is dominated by exports (about 85 percent of sales in 2008), while most of our food is imported (about 66 percent of the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in Hawaii).

While an interruption in shipping for whatever reason would obviously be detrimental to Hawaii’s dependency on imported food, the Plasch Econ Pacific report reminds us that it would also make it difficult to export, thereby freeing about 65,000 acres statewide (according to a 2010 estimate) for replanting to supply local markets. The report proffers that if increased food self-sufficiency were to occur, then, instead of sending dollars out of state for imported foods, more money would be spent in Hawaii, thereby increasing jobs and incomes locally.

It’s a two-pronged process: Demanding the labeling of GE foods creates needed transparency and frees us from the control of a secretive system; demanding locally grown food liberates our economy and provides true security.

2010 CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS

Key:

M.=Monsanto; Du.=DuPont;

Morris=Monsanto lobbyist George A “Red” Morris;

Radcliffe=Monsanto lobbyist John H. Radcliffe

Loihi=Monsanto Lobbyist Loihi Communications

Neil Abercrombie, GOVERNOR

$1,000 (M.)

$6,000 (Morris)

$6,000 (Radcliffe)

$1,000 (Fred Perlak,VP, M.)

Joe Souki, HOUSE (D)

$1,500 (M.)

$1,000 (Morris)

$2,000 (Radcliffe)

Ken Ito, HOUSE (D)

$1,000 (M.)

$1,000 (Radcliffe)

$500 (Morris)

Donna Mercado Kim, SENATE (D)

$1,500 (M.)

$1,000 (Morris)

$500 (Radcliffe)

$500 (Loihis)

Joey Manahan, HOUSE (D)

$1,000 (M.)

$1,000 (Radcliffe)

$750 (Morris)

$250 (Du.)

James Kunane Tokioka, HOUSE (D)

$1,500 (M)

$1,000 (Radcliffe)

$1,000 (Morris)

$750 (SYNGENTA CROP PROTECTION)

$500 (Du.)

Sharon E. Har, HOUSE (D)

$1,000 (M.)

$850 (Du.)

$1,000 (Morris)

$1,000 (Radcliffe)

$500 (SYNGENTA)

Clifton K. Tsuji, HOUSE (D)

$1,000 (M.)

$500 (Syngenta Crop Protection)

$1,000 (Morris)

$750 (Radcliffe)

$100 (Loihi)

Sylvia Luke, HOUSE (D)

$500 (M.)

$500 (Radcliffe)

$750 (Morris)

Kyle Yamashita, HOUSE (D)

$1,500 (M.)

$1,500 (Morris)

$750 (Radcliffe)

$150 (Du.)

Jerry Leslie Chang, HOUSE (D)

$1,000 (M.)

$1,000 (Radcliffe)

$1,000 (Morris)

Brian T. Taniguchi, SENATE (D)

$500 (M.)

$1,000 (Morris)

Robert Herkes, HOUSE (D)

$1,000 (M.)

$2,000 (Morris)

$1,500 (Radcliffe)

Will Espero, SENATE (D)

$1,000 (M.)

$250 (Radcliffe)

$200 (Loihi)

Russell S. Kokubun, SENATE (D)

$1,000 (M.)

$1,000 (Morris)

$400 (Du.)

Calvin K Y Say, HOUSE (D)

$2,000 (M.)

$400 (Du.)

Roz Baker, SENATE (D)

$1,000 (M.)

$1,000 (Morris)

$500 (Radcliffe)

Pono Chong, HOUSE (D)

$500 (M.)

$2,000 (Morris)

$600 (Radcliffe)

$250 (Loihi)

Mark M. Nakashima, HOUSE (D)

$500 (M.)

$250 (Morris)

$250 (Radcliffe)

Angus L K McKelvey, HOUSE (D)

$1,500 (M.)

$1,000 (Morris)

$500 (Radcliffe)

$350 (Loihi)

$250 (Du.)

Jill N. Tokuda, SENATE (D)

$1,500 (M.)

$1,000 (Morris)

Ryan I. Yamane, HOUSE (D)

$500 (M.)

$1,000 (Morris)

$1,500 (Radcliffe)

Blake K. Oshiro, HOUSE (D)

$500 (M.)

$500 (Radcliffe)

Clayton Hee, SENATE (D)

$1,500 (M.)

$1,500 (Radcliffe)

$200 (Loihi)

$200 (Du.)

Scott Y. Nishimoto, HOUSE (D)

$250 (M.)

$250 (Loihi)

Suzanne N. J. Chun Oakland, SENATE (D)

$1,000 (M.)

Brickwood M. Galuteria, SENATE (D)

$500 (M.)

Ronald Kouchi, SENATE (D)

$1,000 (M.)

Isaac W. Choy, HOUSE (D)

$500 (M.)

Michelle Kidani, SENATE (D)

$250 (Paul Koehler, Community Affairs Director Monsanto Hawaii)

Henry J. C. Aquino, HOUSE (D)

$300 (Loihi)

Tom Brower, HOUSE (D)

$250 (Loihi)

Marcus R. Oshiro, HOUSE (D)

$250 (Loihi)

Glenn Wakai, SENATE (D)

$450 (Du.)

Barbara C Marumoto, HOUSE (R)

$250 (Du.)