Hawaii’s been in the news lately. The state legalized same-sex marriage, a state legislator went on a rampage smashing homeless people’s shopping carts in Honolulu, and now the Big Island has banned biotech companies from operating or planting genetically-modified seeds. So it’s aloha, Monsanto. (Aloha in the “buh-bye” sense).
Hawaiians like to keep the mainland and all its perceived foibles at arm’s length. As with a lot of islands, anxiety about contamination runs high. Long Island scrapped a nuclear power plant almost at the last second because there’s nowhere to evacuate in case of disaster. The UK, free of rabies for a century, quarantines all pets for six months upon arrival. (28 Days Later was an extended metaphor for hyper-rabies destroying the whole country.) Hawaii contains hundreds of species that are endangered, found nowhere else, or both. So it’s a visceral issue on a volcanic island with fewer people than Fremont, California.
Although the last sugarcane plantation closed in the 1990s, and tourism long since displaced agriculture across Hawaii, the state is home to more than just boutique products like macadamias and taro. There’s pineapple, of course, and Kona coffee, but also corn. The state is actually the world’s leading producer of corn seed, most of it genetically modified. Hawaiian agriculture benefits from three growing seasons, shipping transgenic seed from experimental farms run by Monsanto, Dow Chemical, and BASF on Oahu and Kauai. For its part, Kauai is working on anti-GMO legislation of its own.
California tried for something much milder in 2012, when Prop 37 would have forced the disclosure of genetically modified foods, prohibiting them to be labeled “natural.” It was touted as plainly beneficial for consumer choice, but opponents successfully flipped the issue, turning Prop 37’s exemptions against it and reframing the proposal as yet another deceptive scheme full of loopholes for the benefit of “special interests.” Large consumer products companies spent $46 million to defeat it, and after initially looking like it would sail to victory, Prop 37 went down 51-49. A similar measure failed in Washington State this year.
The genetic engineering of the food supply is one of those rare issues where you can see validity on both sides – or rather, it’s all too easy to see both sides as unsupportable. If you judge something by its enemies, Prop 37 had the right ones, pitting alternative medicine practitioners and Dr. Bronner’s soap against PepsiCo, Dow Chemical, and DuPont, who teamed up to kill it in a highly expensive war of misinformation. Their claim that labeling products that contain GMOs would be challenging and costly was absurd. A guarantee that what’s on the label is what’s on our plates is reassuring, but backers of Prop 37 came to the fight with too much fear and too little hard science, and, well, the anti-GMO people tend to have their fair share of apocalyptic whackjobs railing about how vaccines causing autism.
The biggest problem is misinformation – and there’s a lot out there. For the record, the notion that Monsanto sues farmers who accidentally grow crops from modified seeds that blow onto their land isn’t true, but the Supreme Court did rule unanimously against a farmer who violated Monsanto’s patents by planting soybean seeds he’d saved up from previous years, instead of always buying them straight from the company every spring. But even if genetically modified foods don’t pose any risks to human health, they still require an unsustainable shit-ton of pesticides. As the sponsor of the Hawaii anti-GMO bill said, “Do we move forward in the direction of the agro-chemical monoculture model of agriculture, or do we move toward eco-friendly, diversified farming?” Industry fought hard in Hawaii because the new law will embolden opponents of GMOs elsewhere, but also because they had a lot to lose, and finally, did.
Image from Stop Poisoning Paradise