The fervor surrounding genetically engineered crops in Hawaii is expected to spill into this year’s elections, as a number of candidates have already begun framing their campaigns around an anti-GMO sentiment.

It’s also anticipated to lead to increased spending on particular races that will pit opponents of genetically modified organisms against those who believe that large agribusiness and chemical companies, such as Monsanto, Syngenta and BASF, are a boon to the local economy and global food production research.

Those companies, of course, grow genetically altered seed crops on many of Hawaii’s islands, and have a $250-million-a-year stake in making sure their business interests are protected.

But while the biotech firms, and in particular Monsanto, have long been financial players in local politics, the anti-GMO movement is ramping up its own firepower.

On the anti-GMO side, the Center for Food Safety, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that has been battling industrial agricultural practices since the 1990s, just opened a new office in Honolulu.

The group has already registered a political action committee with the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission to help elect like-minded politicians to state and local office.

“We’re fighting because people have a right to know what’s in their food,” said Ashley Lukens, program director for the Center for Food Safety’s Honolulu office. “Unfortunately, to get the respect you deserve you have to have equal weapons.”

Lukens said the PAC has about $50,000 that will be used for “targeted voter education and outreach” and is not intended to support individual candidates.

Lukens described the PAC, which has yet to file any financial disclosures with the commission, as a prototype for the Center for Food Safety that could be replicated elsewhere if successful.

The plan, she said, is to evaluate candidates based on their positions related to food issues, such as GMO labeling and pesticide use, and develop a public report card that voters can use to help make up their minds.

Historically, the anti-GMO faction hasn’t been a big spender on political campaigns. In 2012, Judith Kern and Kent Whealy contributed $12,000 to Molokai activist Walter Ritte’s campaign for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Kern and Whealy head the Ceres Trust, a private foundation based in Northfield, Minnesota, that gives money to support organic agriculture and research.

But that appears about to change, especially as more candidates motivated by the recent debates on Maui, Kauai and the Big Island jump in the races.

And while $50,000 is a good start, the Center for Food Safety and other GMO opponents still must contend against the money and influence of the biotech companies that have been giving to Hawaii’s political campaigns for years.

Historical Heavyweight Monsanto

The biotech industry and its affiliates, including lobbyist and former Hawaii Crop Improvement Association Executive Director Alicia Maluafiti, have given at least $200,000 to Hawaii politicians since November 2006, according to Campaign Spending Commission data analyzed by Civil Beat.

Exact amounts are hard to come by based on the information available through the state’s campaign spending data portals. Not all names of donors, whether individuals or companies, are spelled correctly, for instance. Donors also don’t always say who they work for when making a contribution, making it even harder to follow the money.

But some trends are clear.

By far the largest single contributor has been Monsanto. Between Jan. 1, 2008 and Dec. 31, 2013, the company’s PAC has given $114,500 to candidates running for Hawaii office.

Fred Perlak, Monsanto Hawaii’s vice president of research and business operations and the former president of the Crop Improvement Association, has personally given an additional $17,500 to candidates, although he didn’t always list Monsanto has his employer.

The next highest contributors by company were DuPont Pioneer and Syngenta, each of which have given about $20,000 to candidates since 2006. Syngenta, which recently formed a political action committee, donated $18,850 to candidates, according to the data, while DuPont contributed $22,900.

Dow Agrosciences was the smallest contributor among the big biotech businesses operating in Hawaii, only giving out $4,300. BASF, which is the largest chemical company in the world, did not report any donations to candidates.

The disparity is not surprising, according Mark Phillipson, a Syngenta executive and the new president of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association. He told Civil Beat in an emailed statement that the biotech firms, including his own, take their own tack when it comes to giving money or wading into local politics.

“Each company has their own criteria and philosophy about contributing to campaigns,” Phillipson said. “Historically, Syngenta Hawaii has participated in the election process on a limited basis by supporting a few selected candidates with campaign contributions.”

The difference can also be seen in lobbyist disclosure data from the Hawaii State Ethics Commission. Monsanto has six registered lobbyists — including Hawaii super lobbyists George “Red” Morris and John Radcliffe — whereas the other companies only employ one or two.

Follow the Money

So who’s benefitted most from the biotech largesse? If you look at individual candidates, it’s Gov. Neil Abercrombie, arguably the most powerful politician in the state at the moment.

Abercrombie received $8,100 from the companies alone, according to an overview of the data. When adding biotech lobbyists, such as Maluafiti and Perlak, to the mix that figure jumps to more than $14,000 since 2006.

But the most money spent by far is on the legislative level. The biotech firms gave more than $120,000 to House and Senate candidates between November 2006 and December 2013, the end of the last campaign finance reporting period. That figure creeps even higher when adding in the lobbyist money.

The biotech firms have reason to put a lot of money to work at the State Capitol. Just this session lawmakers considered a GMO labeling bill as well as others related to the industry. Members of the House and Senate agriculture committees, which often decide the fate of bills related to GMOs and biotech, are some of the biggest recipients for donations.

For instance, Rep. Clift Tsuji, who chaired the House Agriculture Committee before Rep. Jessica Wooley, the current chair, has received more than $8,000 from the biotech companies, including Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow and Dupont. Wooley, however, is seen as a friend of the anti-GMO movement and hasn’t received any donations from biotech.

But Tsuji has long been an ally of the companies, and in 2010 was even named the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s legislator of the year along with then-House Speaker Calvin Say, who also has received thousands of dollars in donations from biotech firms.

Senate Ag Chair Clarence Nishihara has also benefited from biotech, pulling down more than $4,000 from the companies and a couple thousand more from their lobbyists.

Other lawmakers who have received thousands dollars include Sens. Michelle Kidani, Clayton Hee and Donovan Dela Cruz. House Speaker Joe Souki and Reps. Sharon Har, Kyle Yamashita and James Tokioka have also seen their campaign treasuries boosted by biotech.

Why Buy Local?

But it’s not just state lawmakers who the biotech companies must worry about influencing these days. The fight over GMOs and pesticides has moved to the county level where mayors and council members are battling over new laws to regulate the industry.

Campaign spending data shows some money flowing from Hawaii’s biotech industry but not on the scale of the legislative and statewide candidates. Since 2006, candidates for mayor and city council offices have received about $30,000 from biotech and its lobbyists.

On Kauai, Mayor Bernard Carvalho, who vetoed controversial legislation that will require greater disclosure from the seed industry about pesticide use, has received at least $5,000 from biotech. The council overrode the veto.

And on Maui, where citizens are now mounting a campaign to put a ban on GMO crops on the ballot, Mayor Alan Arakawa has taken in at least $2,500 from Monsanto.

The company has also given $1,500 each to Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and former Mayor Peter Carlisle.

Current Honolulu City Council members have also received thousands of dollars from the biotech firms. Council members Joey Manahan and Kymberly Pine — both former state lawmakers — have accepted contributions from biotech, as has Council Chair Ernie Martin, whose council district includes the North Shore where anti-GMO sentiment runs hot.

A good reason not to give

We know not everyone can afford to pay for news right now, which is why we keep our journalism free for everyone to read, listen, watch and share. 

But that promise wouldn’t be possible without support from loyal readers like you.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help keep our journalism free for all readers. And if you’re able, consider a sustaining monthly gift to support our work all year-round.



About the Author