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Hawaii Polarized by Steamroller Activism

Joan Conrow

Picture of Joan Conrow Though Hawaii is known as the “aloha state,” we have our share of scrappy fights over development, tourism and Native Hawaiian rights.  Still, no issue has polarized the Islands more thoroughly in modern times than the cultivation of genetically engineered crops.

Hawaii, with its idyllic year-round growing season, has long been a source for hybrid seeds. In the past two decades, agrochemical companies like DuPont-Pioneer, Monsanto, BASF and DOW have greatly expanded operations in the Islands, testing and raising biotech and conventional crops on thousands of acres left fallow by the demise of sugar cane and pineapple.

Seeds are now the most valuable agricultural crop in Hawaii, and farmers also raise a variety of papaya genetically engineered to resist the ringspot virus that nearly destroyed commercial production in the 1990s.

Yet aside from isolated citizen complaints about field dust, and a bid to halt genetic engineering of native Hawaiian taro varieties, the seed crops drew little attention and GMOs were essentially a non-issue.

Everything changed in January 2013 when mainland-based advocacy groups, including Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice, began a campaign to use the Islands as a testing ground for laws regulating biotech crops.

In the two years that followed, those of us living in tiny rural towns on Kauai, Maui, Molokai and the Big Island experienced a type of steamroller activism unlike any our small, tight-knit communities had previously encountered.  Social media produced a relentless stream of memes and posts that viciously vilified seed company executives, field workers, conventional farmers, scientists and anyone who supported biotech, while amplifying and even fabricating health risks associated with pesticides and GE foods.

The steady drumbeat of fear had its desired effect.  People living near fields that had produced sugar and pineapple for decades suddenly began claiming that the seed companies were ruining their health and poisoning the land. Some citizens and politicians accepted these allegations as fact, though their scientific basis was slim to non-existent. No fact-finding process was conducted to assess the existence or extent of a public or environmental health problem.

Meanwhile, the climate of intimidation and retribution, reinforced by marches, extensive graffiti, unruly County Council meetings and the destruction of papaya crops, effectively stymied opposition and dissent. Citizens — some of them culturally adverse to conflict, others afraid of being targeted by activists — became increasingly reluctant to speak against or question the movement and its tactics.

The old dividing lines of race and length of residency were redrawn as “locals” — those born and raised in Hawaii — squared off against activists, many of them white newcomers. Communities and families were split apart by the contentious debate, which allowed no middle ground, no compromise, none of the give and take that characterizes true aloha.

In this social and political environment, which a longtime Kauai farmer aptly described as “toxic,” elected officials on two islands and voters on a third passed laws regulating and even banning GE crops. A federal judge already has struck down two of the ordinances, ruling that state authority over pesticides and GE crops preempts county laws. The third initiative is still pending before a state judge.  It is expected to meet a similar fate.

Despite the legal setbacks, Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice show no sign of withdrawing as they continue to coordinate anti-GMO campaigns and fund lawsuits. A recent press release from CFS seeking support for an appeal of the Hawaii County ruling stated:

"The outcome of this case could affect all U.S. counties, because it is the first legal challenge to a county law of this kind."

In short, anti-biotech groups are trying to establish case law in isolated, rural municipalities like Hawaii, where gullible politicians and puzzled citizens are easily manipulated and misled by fear tactics, bullying and vague talking points like “home rule."

While advocacy organizations may feel this strategy is useful, their fight has taken a heavy toll on those of us living in the war zones they orchestrated. Eventually, they'll move on to other battlefields, leaving residents of small-town Hawaii polarized, our communities fractured, old friendships torn apart, concerns still unaddressed and no process for healing in sight.

Read Part 2: Kauai Panel Seeks to Ground GMO Debate in Facts

Joan Conrow is an award-winning independent journalist who writes frequently about politics, the environment and travel. Her work has appeared in many national and regional publications. She's lived on Kauai since 1987 and has covered the biotech issue in Hawaii for more than a decade. She also publishes the popular Kauai Eclectic blog.

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