This commentary was submitted as an entry in Civil Beat’s Emerging Writers contest.

As the acrimony over genetically modified (GM) crops, pesticide use, and unneighborly industrial agricultural operations rages throughout the Hawaiian islands, it appears that no amount of scientific inquiry can remedy the situation.

Even if GM crops are harmless to eat, and pesticides are applied legally and safely, the likes of Monsanto and Pioneer have overstayed their welcome by challenging the authority of the people of Hawaii.

Legislature opening GMO demonstrator. 20 jan 2016. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
A demonstrator makes his point at the opening of the Legislature’s 2016 session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In Kauai, Maui, and the Big Island, residents have passed initiatives to limit the cultivation of GM crops or to create pesticide buffer zones; in each case, the initiatives were overturned in federal courts by Big Ag lawsuits. It now appears that no county­ level efforts will withstand the legal challenges brought by these seed companies who are hell bent on protecting their test crop fields.

Home rule has become an important topic in the face of these issues; in fact, we can learn important lessons by looking to another ongoing controversy: the Thirty Meter Telescope  on Mauna Kea.

Similarly to the anti­-GMO movement, the ant-i­TMT movement has been decried as anti-­science. However, this condemnation, in both cases, misses the point entirely; it’s not that these movements are anti­science, it’s that they are striving for home rule.

The people of Hawaii have become very leery of outsiders seeking to exploit the lands we call home, but we are increasingly powerless and voiceless to do anything to stop these incredibly wealthy big business ventures.

If we follow the rabbit hole of the TMT debate far enough, we inevitably come face to face with the issue of Hawaiian sovereignty: the sacred land of Mauna a Wakea has been desecrated by the decisions of the State of Hawaii and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs with almost no consideration for the values of kanaka maoli (people of Hawaiian descent). This issue of sovereignty and home rule is deeply rooted in a Hawaiian form of the precautionary principle: malama i ka ‘aina ­ respect and care for the land.

Employees at Mycogen Seeds, an affiliate of Dow AgroSciences, lay irrigation lines in a field on Molokai in 2014..
Employees at Mycogen Seeds, an affiliate of Dow AgroSciences, lay irrigation lines in a field on Molokai in 2014. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The people of Hawaii are indeed much wiser than the lawmakers who refuse to uphold their will; they understand that the lifeblood of both Hawaiian culture and the state’s economy are tied to the beauty of the islands.

It is senseless, then, that Kamehameha Schools, whose mission is to provide educational opportunities and perpetuate the culture of kanaka maoli, leases land to Monsanto, which it uses to farm genetically modified test crops that do nothing for the people of Hawaii. These monoculture test crops allow the development of more efficient, higher yield types of corn, for example, that will largely be used as cattle feed.

To truly honor Hawaiian cultural heritage, these lands ought to be leased to farmers willing to recreate ahupua’a,­ traditional Hawaiian land divisions based around sustainability and providing a diverse array of food directly to the community.

A serious commitment to local, homegrown, organic farming would be a welcome change in direction away from the heavy handed practices of Monsanto and Dow, in addition to assuaging some of the issues of food security associated with occupying the most remote, and oil dependent, island chain on the planet.

Kauai GMO farmworker monitor field for birds. 3.23.13 Photo by Nick Grube/Civil Beat
On Kauai, a farm worker monitors a field, to chase away birds that might eat GMO seed crops. Nick Grube/Civil Beat

Unfortunately, the State Legislature has refused to act to support the wishes of the public. Attempts to label GM foods have failed despite widespread public support. Many legislators receive campaign contributions from Big Ag companies leading to the perception that the game is rigged, so to speak.

This only exacerbates the powerlessness people feel when corporate agendas displace precautionary preservation of the islands and/or Hawaiian culture. The continued presence of Big Ag in Hawaii doesn’t make sense to the voters of Kauai, Maui, and the Big Island; and there is strong sentiment against it on Oahu as well.

It seems as though it’s only a matter of time before the groundswell of public support can overcome lobbying efforts and campaign contributions from these companies. Monsanto has over 250 crop breeding sites in 63 countries around the world; as the people of Hawaii have emphatically stated, they do not need any more here.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a current photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

About the Author