Monsanto’s recent guilty plea may reinvigorate opposition to genetically modified seed companies and revive questions over their value to Hawaii.

Hawaii GrownThe seed industry, particularly Monsanto, has faced massive scrutiny internationally, having settled thousands of cases involving billions of dollars for products leading to health and environmental problems.

But critics say the $12 million fine that resulted from 30 environmental violations was not enough to dissuade the company, now owned by German pharmaceuticals conglomerate Bayer, from spraying pesticides and acting irresponsibly toward the environment in Hawaii. Monsanto’s fines total $22 million in recent years, having paid $10.2 million in 2019 for illegally storing hazardous waste and spraying a banned pesticide on crops on Maui.

Seed companies, including Monsanto, have a decades-long history of performing agricultural research throughout Hawaii. But since the early 2000s, there has been substantial pushback from communities over pesticide usage on genetically modified organisms, predominantly corn.

Monsanto, which is owned by Bayer and leases land on Molokai, was ordered to pay $12 million as part of a settlement agreement last week. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Hawaii’s seed crop industry is currently worth $107 million, almost double the value of the state’s second most valuable crop, coffee, which the Department of Agriculture said was worth $54 million in 2020. But the seed crop industry’s worth continues to dwindle from its 2012 high of $241.6 million.

All Quiet On The Anti-GMO Front?

The decline in overall value and guilty pleas were little comfort to anti-GMO groups in Hawaii, who think the $12 million fine was far too little to induce the company to change its practices. The Monsanto brand, which was officially discontinued in 2018 by Bayer, is valued at $51.28 billion, and employs 600 people in Hawaii.

Jeri Di Pietro, president of Hawaii SEED, an anti-GMO group established in 2002, said the benefit from thrice-yearly harvests outweighs any potential financial losses from fines.

“It’s just change between the cushions,” she said of the latest fine.

But the fines could serve another purpose, Di Pietro said, as they could reignite the movement against what Hawaii SEED and other anti-GMO groups see as destructive businesses extracting value from the land with little benefit to Hawaii.

The pushback against the seed industry seems to have weakened globally over recent years, in part due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and some believe the efficacy of Covid vaccines will put a strain on anti-GMO sentiments. And some factions have been fracturing as anti-GMO and anti-vaccination sentiments no longer fully align.

"Personally, it's not a major concern to me if the seed industry dries up and goes away." -- Committee on Agriculture and Environment Chair Sen. Mike Gabbard.

But the movement has been growing in Hawaii, according to Di Pietro, who said most of their recent work had been online or out of the public eye, to ensure no in-person work would be done due to pandemic concerns.

Hawaii's GMO history is not restricted to private enterprise, since the University of Hawaii has done high-profile work in genetically engineering various crops as well. One of the most famous is the rainbow papaya, which was the first GMO fruit to be approved by U.S. Department of Agriculture in the late 1990s.

It was a "last gasp" solution following several attempts at addressing the papaya ringspot virus, according to UH professor Richard Manshardt. The virus was blamed for major losses in Puna, one of the major areas for growing papaya on the Big Island, when the yield dropped from 53 million pounds in 1992 to 27.8 million pounds in 1997.

Despite being adopted enthusiastically by farmers, there was significant public pushback at the time, including the alleged destruction of some farm crops by activists. The GMO papayas developed now comprise 80% of Hawaii's market.

Anti-GMO sentiments have been institutionalized through non-mandatory labeling included in packaging, Manshardt said. The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, which makes such disclosures compulsory, is expected to start being enforced next year.

"I think there have been lots of commercial manipulation of the fear of GMOs to create a market that's anti-GMO," Manshardt said. "The organic industry has been the basic beneficiary of that."

But given the low-input nature of hybridized and bred crop varieties, Manshardt said it was ironic that organic producers would not want to use them because once they're in the ground, they require little maintenance.

New techniques, such as gene-editing technology CRISPR, which can be used to insert DNA into existing genes, were useful to help with projects such as dealing with the papaya virus, but the labeling regulation was one of two major hurdles to seeing more genetically engineered products on the market.

"The other reason that you don't see more genetically engineered products is because the public has been conditioned against it," Manshardt said. "You have to mount a special effort to advertise a product that has been targeted as GMO."

Regulation Measures

A 2019 bill passed by the Hawaii Legislature targeted the use of experimental and restricted pesticides around schools, health facilities and homes for the elderly. It was amended to only include schools, during school hours, in its final form and the buffer zone was limited to 100 feet. Federal courts have also struck down Hawaii, Maui and Kauai counties' attempts to regulate GMOs in their jurisdictions.

"They know that they kind of have the OK by government," Di Pietro said. "Not many politicians question their practices."

Anti-GMO protests such as this one in 2014, have been frequently held over the past decade, though the pandemic has led to fewer recent public demonstrations. Ryan Burden

The 2019 bill meant companies on Kauai, where Di Pietro lives, sprayed before school started each day, she added. This led to concerns about airborne residue affecting students, despite the buffer zone rules.

State Rep. Amy Perruso, vice chair of the House Agriculture Committee, says culpability for longstanding and systematic issues emanating from seed companies comes back to the Legislature, since it's an issue of use of public lands.

Many seed companies lease agricultural lands, including some on Kauai, that are managed by the Agribusiness Development Corporation, said Perruso.

"We've already seen the lax oversight from ADC," Perusso said.

According to a statement on Monday from the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, which represents the seed industry, the companies are serious about protecting employee and community health, and have self-reported violations.

"The seed industry has a long history of very safe operations, and is subject to extensive regulatory oversight," the HCIA statement said.

Drying Up

Though the industry appears to be in steady decline, HCIA attributed the current waning numbers to heavy initial investments. Because nothing grown in Hawaii is sold in-state, HCIA said the value was calculated by the industry's investment and operational budgets, such as salaries, infrastructure and agricultural inputs.

"Back in the mid-2000s, there was significant investment in establishing sites and facilities. Efficiencies and technologies have (now) allowed the industry to use less land for its programs," HCIA said.

A Monsanto field worker pollinates corn on Molokai. The company has spent heavily to settle lawsuits over the years. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Earlier this year Bayer invested millions of dollars in increasing capacity at the Molokai facility it built in 2012, which includes 102 acres adjacent to its current land, but the new facility will not directly lead to additional jobs, according to Bayer Hawaii's government affairs lead Alan Takemoto.

Though the USDA numbers illustrate a precipitous decline in seed industry value over the past decade, Takemoto said the industry is just settling to a more stable level.

"Back in 2005, it was kind of valued at $74 million," Takemoto said, adding that Bayer's investment might be reflected in the figures up to three years from now. "You don't see the capital investment because we've already benefited from (it)."

Takemoto said that Bayer was "committed to dialogue and transparency" because its recent investment showed its long-term interest in Hawaii. He added that it runs farm tours for those interested.

And in terms of benefit to Hawaii, Bayer's work returns in the form of meat from livestock raised on feed, canned goods, cooking oils and other corn-based products, Takemoto said.

Takemoto also pointed to the 220-acre Ag Park in Kunia, which it helps support, and said the recent investment was a sign that Bayer had long term interests in Hawaii.

Whether the industry is becoming more efficient, has fewer large projects, is diminishing or settling, Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee Chair Mike Gabbard said the reduction in acreage could provide an opportunity for more diverse crops to be planted.

Gabbard questioned how players like Monsanto could continually break the rules without heavy penalties, but could not say if there would be any further regulations introduced in the upcoming legislative session.

"If these guys can't play by the rules ... they don't belong here," Gabbard said. But he also said he wanted to see all the facts behind the numbers collated by USDA on Hawaii's seed industry, to see what a reduction in value might mean for the state's agricultural industry.

"Personally, it's not a major concern for me if the seed industry dries up and goes away," he said.

Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Marisla Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation.<

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