Biotech companies have spent at least $160,000 to sponsor a four-day national convention of state agricultural officials hosted by the Hawaii Department of Agriculture in Kailua-Kona this week.

Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, BASF Corporation and the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association are among those sponsoring the annual meeting of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.

While the NASDA meeting is also sponsored by dozens of other organizations, including Meadow Gold Dairies Hawaii, the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation, John Deere and USDA Rural Development, the backers of genetically modified organisms are among the groups spending the most.

DuPont, Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer Crop Science, for example, each contributed at the highest sponsorship level, Diamond, meaning they gave $30,000 or more.

An aerial view of Monsanto Company's fields on Molokai, part of Maui County.
An aerial view of Monsanto Company’s fields on Molokai. File Photo

Dow AgroSciences gave at the Gold level of $20,000 while the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, a trade group for the local seed industry, gave at the Bronze level of $10,000.

Most other groups contributed far less, in amounts ranging from $500 (Supporter) to $5,000 (Friend).

Given that Hawaii has been a battleground state in the debate over GMOs and pesticides, the pro-GMO sponsorship of a meeting hosted by the state was bound to attract notice.

In 2013, Kauai County passed an ordinance requiring more disclosure of pesticide use by biotech companies as well as imposing buffer zones for spraying around schools and hospitals. That ordinance was struck down by a federal judge and awaits an appeal.

Meanwhile, Hawaii County had allowed only for the production of GMO-modified Rainbow Papayas. But the partial ban on GMO crops was struck down by a federal judge and is currently in litigation.

And, last year Maui County passed a ballot measure that sought to impose a moratorium on GMO crops until a study of public health and environmental impacts is completed. The measure never went into effect and is winding its way through the legal system.

Ashley Lukens, director of the Hawaii Center for Food Safety (part of a national nonprofit public interest and environmental advocacy group), said she is worried about the role that GMO companies have at the NASDA meeting.

“I think that the broader public is concerned about the influence of the industry on government policy and government action in the state of Hawaii, so this will not assuage those concerns,” she said.

Sponsors represent all members of agricultural production, the full scope of agriculture. We certainly do not only want biotech.” — Amanda Culp, NASDA communications director

Lukens added, “I also think that what’s lost when community food advocates are not included in the conversation is all the innovation and creativity that is happening here in our state — activity that I think really holds the future of food in its hands.”

Meeting organizers say a variety of viewpoints are represented at the event, and that companies like Monsanto have long sponsored the NASDA annual meetings.

There is diversity in sponsors, but it is very common for friends in the biotech industry to be sponsors,” said Amanda Culp, NASDA director of communications.

Culp noted that NASDA is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and said that sponsors are not permitted to exhibit at the meetings. The annual events are paid for by membership dues from states — which are based on agricultural output, meaning dues from Texas are larger than dues from Vermont — and from sponsorships.

“Our doors are open,” said Culp. “Sponsors represent all members of agricultural production, the full scope of agriculture. We certainly do not only want biotech.”

Sponsorship ‘A Mixed Bag’

Scott Enright, chairman of the Hawaii DOA, said sponsorship selection for the 2015 NASDA meeting was coordinated by him and the group’s office in Washington, D.C. He echoed Culp’s position that meeting sponsorship comes from a variety of sources, and pointed to two examples: the Organic Trade Association (a Platinum sponsor at $25,000) and The Kohala Center (Diamond, $30,000 or more).

Enright said that he was responsible for the sponsorship of The Kohala Center, a community-based group in Waimea focused on energy and food self-reliance. The center’s sponsorship was helped by the Ulupono Initiative, a Honolulu-based investing firm that uses for-profit, non-profit and social investments to improve locally produced food, renewable energy and reduction of waste.

(Ulupono is funded by Civil Beat Publisher Pierre Omidyar.)

Hawaii DOAC Chairman Scott Enright.
Hawaii DOA Chairman Scott Enright. Office of the Governor

“Sponsorship is a mixed bag,” said Enright, who pointed out that the biotech meeting centers on production agriculture, meaning large fields that produce corn, soy and wheat.

“That’s a different world from Hawaii,” he explained. “NASDA represents all 50 states, and we are here doing the work for large ag states like Nebraska.”

The 2015 meeting, which began Sunday at the Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa and ends Wednesday, is being held in Hawaii because Enright is the current NASDA president. It’s the first time the meeting has been held here since 1966.

According to event organizers, NASDA members are scheduled to vote on more than 20 policy amendments and action items that involve issues like child nutrition, antimicrobial resistance and environmental protection.

Tours will focus on Hawaii’s coffee industry at Greenwell Coffee Farms and green energy development at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii. Local agricultural products will also be on display from Hawaii Seal of Quality producers.

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