The Biotechnology Industry Organization spent nearly $8 million last year lobbying federal officials, making it one of the top 50 spenders on national lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Now the influential global trade group that includes more than 1,000 biotechnology companies has turned its sights on Hawaii.

The organization joined nine local groups and individuals from the Big Island last week to challenge Hawaii County’s ban on genetically modified farming.

The county passed the law known as Bill 113 last year as part of a broader movement against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) across the state.

Papaya tree

A papaya tree on the Big Island. Papayas are exempted from the ban on genetically engineered crops.

Sophie Cocke/Civil Beat

On Kauai, Syngenta Inc. and other agribusinesses are suing the county to overturn a recent law requiring more disclosure about pesticide use and genetic engineering practices. On Maui, local residents are pushing for a voter initiative that would ban GMO farming, which could cripple Monsanto Co. and Dow AgroSciences operations if it passes this fall.

But the Big Island is different. There are no biotechnology companies on the Big Island, and Bill 113 exempted existing genetically engineered crops like papayas. When the debate on Bill 113 unfolded in the county seat last September, few representatives from multinational companies testified in what was largely a fight between local farmers and a growing local anti-GMO movement.

The involvement of the global trade group, which comes just two months after the national anti-GMO advocacy group Center for Food Safety set up shop in Honolulu, is yet another indication of the significance of the Hawaii GMO debate on the national stage.

Karen Batra, spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said that the group joined the lawsuit to show its support for local farmers, including one of its members, the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association, which is a fellow plaintiff in the case.

“Bill 113 is a direct assault on the technology and on the local farmers and growers that utilize that technology to increase their productivity,” she said.

A Powerful Ally

Lorie Farrell, spokeswoman for a coalition of Big Island farmers called Hawaii Farmers and Ranchers United, emphasized that while the national trade group’s involvement is helpful, all of the plaintiffs are sharing in the cost and local farmers would have pushed forward with the lawsuit regardless.

Still, the trade group may prove to be a powerful ally.

According to tax records, the nonprofit brought in more than $60 million in revenue last year alone. It spent nearly all of that money hosting conferences around the world, lobbying for bills related to biotechnology and paying hefty salaries to top executives like its chief executive officer, who earned $1 million last year.

The group has been a big player in national politics, where its political action committee of the same name has contributed more than $160,000 so far this year to national committees and federal candidates such as Sens. Mitch McConnell and Lamar Alexander, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The organization is also no stranger to legal battles. Federal court records show it has been a party to dozens of lawsuits related to biotechnology and pharmaceuticals in various states, including New York and Washington.

Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission data indicates the group hasn’t donated to local candidates in recent years. But in 2004, the organization intervened in a lawsuit to defend the U.S. Department of Agriculture against the Center for Food Safety and other groups who said the agency wrongly issued permits to biotechnology companies in Hawaii. (The court concluded the government shouldn’t have issued the permits.)

Batra declined to comment on whether the Biotechnology Industry Organization plans to join the ongoing lawsuit against Kauai County’s GMO regulations or whether it would seek to stop the Maui voter initiative banning GMO cultivation.

She said the organization chose to intervene in Hawaii County because the ban criminalizes technology.

“Biology is something that evolves, so you’re going to have evolving pests and evolving plant diseases,” she said. “You shouldn’t prevent the use of science and technology coming to the aid of this industry.”

Influence or Common Interest?

Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, characterized the trade association’s challenge to Bill 113 as an attempt to “stop democracy” and said his organization is considering joining the lawsuit to defend the Hawaii County ban.

“This is a part of the national campaign by the industry to try to stop by all means possible anything that smacks of transparency, that limits what they can do, that limits where and when they can plant,” he said of the complaint. “It seems local, but for them it’s a precedent.”

Hawaii County Councilwoman Margaret Wille, who introduced Bill 113, cast the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s decision to join in the lawsuit as a sign of the industry’s influence on local farmers.

“It’s just another indication of how these multinationals are sort of using the local organizations,” she said.

Richard Ha, a Big Island farmer and plaintiff in the lawsuit, insists that’s not the case and describes Bill 113 as a moral and economic issue.

“We’re concerned about equal treatment,” he said. “Only the Big Island farmers can’t use biotechnology, but all our competitors can.”

He emphasized that the issue is about farmers, not corporations.

“It’s good that they’re involved and we have a common interest,” he said of the national trade group. “But they’re not running us by any stretch of the imagination.”

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