Seed companies and their allies have raised nearly $8 million to defeat a Maui County voter initiative that seeks to temporarily ban GMO farming, according to reports filed with the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission on Monday.

The money raised is along the lines of how much seed companies have been spending to battle GMO-related ballot initiatives across the country, but is unheard-of in Hawaii politics.

“This is historic,” said Tony Baldomero, associate director of the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission. “This is the highest (amount raised) that I have ever seen since I have been here, by any candidate committee, ballot issue committee, non-candidate committee, even super PAC.”

Monsanto Molokai field worker pollinates corn on July 3, 2014.

A Monsanto Molokai field worker pollinates corn.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Maui County’s ballot initiative seeks to impose a temporary moratorium on growing genetically engineered seeds until the county conducts a public health and environmental study of its impact.

The bill is the latest county measure seeking to crack down on Hawaii’s $243 million seed industry, which has been the target of growing activism statewide by residents who are worried about the consequences of pesticides sprayed on genetically modified crops.

According to campaign spending data detailing expenditures from Aug. 10 to Oct. 20 this year, a group called Citizens Against the Maui County Farming Ban has spent more than $6.3 million to defeat the Maui County initiative.

That’s nearly 10 percent of the $64.4 million that all Hawaii political candidates have spent on campaigns according to data from the Campaign Spending Commission that covers Nov. 8, 2006 to Aug. 9, 2014.

The group still had $1.5 million available as of Oct. 20.

Although the organization bills itself as a citizens group, the vast majority of its money comes from global seed companies Monsanto and DowAgroSciences, which have businesses on Maui and Molokai that would be affected by the measure.

In contrast, supporters of the ballot initiative spent a paltry $82,807.21 — or about 1.3 percent that opponents have spent — and have less than $6,500 left.

Big Biotech Bankrolls the Campaign

Campaign spending records show that Monsanto, the leading global producer of seed crops, has donated more than $5 million to Citizens Against the Maui County Farming Ban.

Monsanto, which brought in more than $14 billion in revenue last year, farms about 3,000 acres in Maui County and employs more than 500 workers.

Dow AgroSciences gave over $1.7 million to the political action committee. The company’s subsidiary, Mycogen Seeds, employs 100 people and farms about 400 acres on Molokai, one of three islands in Maui County.

The rest of the funding came from Washington, D.C.-based Council for Biotechnology Information and another group led by Bennette Misalucha, the executive director for the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, a trade group for seed companies including Monsanto.

The $7.9 million raised to defeat the Maui County initiative rivals the seed companies’ fundraising efforts in Oregon and Colorado, where residents are set to vote on bills that would require labeling on food products with genetically modified ingredients.

Anti-labeling groups, which have received major donations from seed companies like Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer, have reportedly raisedat least $11 million in Colorado and more than $16 million in Oregon.

But the fundraising is historic in Hawaii, where the most any candidate has raised is $6.7 million by Republican gubernatorial candidate Linda Lingle in 2006, Baldomero said.

He couldn’t think of any county or statewide ballot initiatives that have even come close to the Maui County ballot initiative.

The amount of money that Citizens Against the Maui County Farming Ban has raised comes out to more than $90 per registered voter in Maui County, which has a population of just 160,000.

The money raised even exceeds the $4.1 million spent by Pacific Resource Partnership in 2012. The super PAC waged one of the most notorious political campaigns in recent Hawaii history that successfully defeated mayoral candidate Ben Cayetano and helped put Mayor Kirk Caldwell in office.

Carmille Lim, an advocate for open government who leads Common Cause Hawaii, said the high contributions are part of a trend of out-of-state groups and money seeking to influence local elections.

“It’s really concerning when you have outside groups outweighing the voices of the people and changing the dynamic of the issues that affect the specific counties and individual districts,” Lim said.

TV Ads, Mailers and Signs

Even though the initiative is on Maui, Citizens Against the Maui County Ballot Initiative has been advertising statewide on TV stations, radio stations and in print.

The group has run a barrage of misleading ads that allege the ballot initiative would shut down all farming operations while increasing pesticide use.

Reports filed with the Federal Communications Commission show that so far, the group has contracts for more than $1.3 million worth of TV spots.

That makes the Maui County initiative among the top 20 most expensive ballot measures in the nation for spending on TV advertising, according to an analysis of statewide ballot initiatives by the Center for Public Integrity.

According to its campaign spending report, Citizens Against the Maui County Ballot Initiative paid $4.2 million to Target Enterprises LLC, a California-based company that manages advertising campaigns.

The group also spent more than half a million dollars sending direct mail, as well as more than $250,000 for research on public opinion. Other notable costs include more than $80,000 in legal fees and $30,730 for printing signs and sign-waving activities.

Over $12,000 was also spent on canvassing, in addition to more than $3,000 for canvassing software. The organization’s spokesman Tom Blackburn-Rodriguez declined to comment on how many people are canvassing and how much they’re getting paid.

John Hart, a communication professor at the Hawaii Pacific University, thinks that the statewide advertising could confuse some voters who may not live on Maui, and lead some to reject a statewide ballot measure that would amend the state constitution to provide more funding for agricultural businesses.

Proponents of that initiative are clearly concerned as well — their most recent mailers state “Not related to the Maui GMO initiative” in large block letters.

“It is a phenomenal amount of money for a county initiative,” Hart said.

So Far Behind

Given how much money is being raised to defeat the Maui County ballot measure, advocates for the bill are overwhelmingly outspent.

So far, they’ve amassed just over $89,000, and used nearly all of it.

The national nonprofit Center for Food Safety’s political action committee received and spent about $15,100, mostly on radio ads and print advertising.

Another $14,000 was raised by a group called Maui United that is run by Autumn Ness, a self-employed resident of Kihei, Maui.

The biggest political action committee supporting the ballot initiative is Maui Citizen’s Initiative for a Temporary Moratorium on GMO Crop Cultivation, which received more than $60,000 and spent more than $55,000 on advertising in TV, print and radio, as well as mailers.

The PAC was started by members of the SHAKA Movement, the organization that successfully gathered more than 9,000 signatures to get the bill on the ballot.

The SHAKA Movement also raised $70,000 through a crowdsourcing campaign called “Help Hawaii End GMO & Openair Chemical Experiments.”

Mark Sheehan, spokesman for SHAKA Movement, said the group did not note that money in its campaign spending disclosure because it was used by the nonprofit for educational activities separate from the Maui County ballot initiative.

Even if the money was included in the report, the group is still woefully behind. The organization hasn’t given up hope — it’s hosting an “ohana body prayer service” this weekend, complete with drummers, juices and crystal magic in return for a $12 “love donation.” But Sheehan is worried that the initiative will fail.

“This is the latest and most dramatic example of how corporations run these islands,” he said.

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