In Search of Frankencorn in Hawaii

Hawaii's dishonest anti-biotech activist campaign

Maui—“Anybody you see around here dressed in a Tyvek suit will be someone from Greenpeace,” David Stoltzfus joked as we surveyed the thousands of carefully numbered corn plants growing in the stony rust-colored soil of a former sugar cane plantation. Stoltzfus, the head of Monsanto’s Piilani seed production farm on Maui, was referring to the white disposable coveralls that anti-biotech protesters wear for the television cameras when “decontaminating” biotech crop fields. Hawaii is the epicenter of a ferocious anti-biotech campaign that aims to shut down such biotech seed production farms. I was there to see for myself the Frankencorn that haunts the activists’ choleric imaginations.

Anti-biotech signs and literature are festooned across the Hawaiian Islands. The Crystals and Gems Gallery in Hanalei, for example, displayed several protest posters and offered fliers urging a ban on biotech crops. The Gallery is the sort of place where, when my wife asked a clerk what an attractive stone was, the reply was, “Do you mean, ‘What does it do?’” Apparently, that particular rock can dispel negativity.

After being advised on the therapeutic properties of various crystals, we asked the clerk what all the anti-biotech literature around the shop was about. She informed us that biotech crops cause cancer, stating emphatically the Kauai’s cancer rates were exceptionally high, especially among people who live close to the seed company fields where biotech crop varieties are being grown. She added that eating foods containing biotech ingredients disrupts satiety signals to the brain, causing people to eat too much food, resulting in the obesity epidemic. Don’t ask me to explain.

Why are the seed companies in Hawaii in the first place? Three words: perpetual growing season. Plant breeders here can produce three crops per year instead of just one. This speeds up the development of new crop varieties from seven years to just four years. The carefully selected seeds can then be transferred to mainland seed production farms, where bulk quantities of the new, improved seeds can be grown to supply farmers around the world.

Standing in that Maui field, looking at the tens of thousands of inbred corn plants that will be crossbred to produce seed, underlined the enormous benefits of hybridization. The inbred parents of future hybrid corn stand a spindly four or so feet tall. Their high-yielding hybrid offspring will grow as high as 16 feet.

Stoltzfus, a lanky plant breeder from Iowa, explained: “Primarily what we are doing here is just farming. We have no labs. We grow corn, capture seed, and develop a product that can be sold to farmers somewhere in the world.” All of the lab work that goes into making modern pest- and herbicide-resistant crop varieties takes place on the mainland.

Hawaii was the site of one of the first great successes of crop biotechnology. In the 1990s, the Hawaiian papaya industry was saved by the creation of a genetically enhanced variety modified to resist the ringspot virus that was devastating growers. Today, about 80 percent of the papayas grown in Hawaii come from these biotech varieties. Instead of celebrating this triumph of human ingenuity, anti-biotech activists are now actually calling for the Hawaiian state government to force growers to cut down and burn all of the disease-resistant papaya trees. Some of them aren’t waiting: In September, a hundred of the trees were macheted down during the night.

The anti-biotech campaign has succeeded in so frightening residents that both state and local politicians are proposing and passing legislation that could end up pushing seed companies off the islands. The county council on the Big Island, for example, just passed a bill that would prohibit the open air cultivation, propagation, development, or testing of genetically engineered crops and plants. The bill justifies the ban on the grounds that it aims “to protect Hawaii Island’s unique and vulnerable ecosystem” by “‘preventing the transfer and uncontrolled spread of genetically engineered organisms on to private property, public lands, and waterways.” Violators of the ordinance will be fined $1,000 per day. Amusingly, the bill exempts genetically modified papaya. During my visit to Hawaii, I ate as much papaya as I could.

That measure may be harsh but it is ultimately symbolic: None of the seed companies operate on the Big Island. The center of the opposition to agricultural biotech is on the island of Kauai. After a raucous public meeting last week, the Kauai county council passed a bill that puts a number of restrictions on the growing of biotech crops and the use of pesticides by seed companies. The bill justifies its restrictions by citing concerns about commercial crop cultivation and pesticide use “on the natural environment, and on human health.” The bill further finds that “genetically modified plants could potentially disperse into the environment of the County of Kauai through pollen drift, seed commingling, and inadvertent transfer of seeds by humans, animals, weather events, and other means. This could have environmental and economic impacts.”

Among other requirements, the bill mandates 500-foot buffer zones around seed company fields, disclosure of what types of seeds are being grown, and notices to neighboring properties within 1,500 feet of a commercial agricultural entity when planning to spray pesticides. Violations will be punished with civil fines of $10,000 to $25,000 per day and/or criminal penalties of $2,000 and up to year in jail.

The justifications for these laws don’t withstand much scrutiny. Local cancer rates are not in fact up: The state Health Department reported earlier this year that “Overall cancer incidence rates (all cancers combined) were significantly lower on Kauai compared to the entire state of Hawaii.” Nor did the department find higher rates of cancer in those districts where the seed company farms are located.

Both the Hawaii County and Kauai County bills claim that they are intended to protect Hawaii’s environment from contamination by biotech crops. Some 90 percent of the biotech crops grown in Hawaii is seed corn; the rest is seed soybeans and canola. None of these crops can commingle with nor pollinate any native Hawaiian species. Fears about the “uncontrolled spread of genetically engineered organisms” are overblown. After all, no forests, swamps, or prairies anywhere have been overrun with domesticated corn, soy, or canola plants that have gone wild.

And when worrying about keeping Hawaii’s ecosystems pristine, keep in mind that half of the plant species now living on the islands are non-native, including such iconic but fading agricultural staples as taro, sweet potatoes, sugar cane, pineapples, and coffee. Driving off the seed companies would certainly produce some "economic impacts," since what the companies produce is about 34 percent of the value of all Hawaiian agricultural crops and they employ around 2,000 workers, more than 20 percent of Islands' agricultural workforce.

The numerous local anti-biotech activist groups include GMO-Free Hawaii, Stop Poisoning Paradise, the Hawaii GMO Justice Coalition, Occupy Monsanto, and Hawaii Seed. The Genetic Literacy Project at the Statistical Assessment Service reports that many of these groups are being funded by off-island opponents of crop biotechnology. The chief goal of these campaigners is to disrupt the progress of the technology they superstitiously abhor by spreading disinformation to frighten the citizens of Hawaii. Sadly, they are succeeding.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    I think there may be frankencorn in Tahiti, Fiji, and Bali too.

    Better get on it!

  • Swiss Servator, Yodelriffic!||

    Damn your speedy typing!

  • Swiss Servator, Yodelriffic!||

    Ron, you magnificent bastard!

    "Uh, I want to go research this article on GMO fears....in, um, Hawaii."

    "Sure, here is your ticket and hotel reservations, get to it!"

  • ||

    Yeah, but...Maui? Couldn't he have found some GMOs on Oahu? At least then he could go to Nico's and get the furikake ahi.

  • Tonio||

    Press Junket! Srsly, Ron, you rock.

  • Brett L||

    The county council on the Big Island, for example, just passed a bill that would prohibit the open air cultivation, propagation, development, or testing of genetically engineered crops and plants

    It is like watching someone hammer a nail through their dick, I want to look away, but I just can't.

  • Sevo||

    These could contaminate artisian bean-sprouts in Chile!

  • BakedPenguin||

    I don't know why they're fighting so hard. The demographic transition has already occurred, there isn't going to be a large increase in human population. Even if they stop these new strains, they aren't going to get the massive genocidal starvation episodes they want.

  • PaulW||

    So what we're really talking about here is good old fashioned breeding? Taking certain qualities and cross breeding them into other plants with certain qualities?

    They do realize this is how corn was created in the first place? Along with almost every one of our agricultural crops.

    Some people are idiots.

    If you want to complain about Monsanto, complain about them having so many politicians in their pockets. Even complain about the dangers of seedless crops... But breeding? Come on.

  • ReasonableS||

    Some of these laws might be intended to protect small scale farmers from having their crop contaminated by plants that are intellectual property of large Agro-companies. A lot of the third world opposition to genetically modified plants is because small scale farmers want to practice the age old custom of saving seeds for the next years planting. Large Agro companies who own intellectual property rights to their seeds don't care if the cross pollination was accidental, they will use their size and legal power to force farmers to pay to grow their seeds.

  • Ron Bailey||

    R: This assertion is flat out false. See my columns, "The Supreme Court Considers Biotech Seed Patents," and "Goliath Whomps David" for more background.

  • Sevo||

    ReasonableS|10.25.13 @ 3:31PM|#
    "Some of these laws might be intended to protect small scale farmers from having their crop contaminated by plants that are intellectual property of large Agro-companies."

    You've been called on this BS every time there's a GMO thread here.
    Questions for you:
    Do you lie in the hopes that someone hasn't seen you called on it?
    Do you lie because you're an imbecile?

  • Libertarius||

    You just don't understand the horror of the potentiality of backwards third-world agrarians being contaminated by first-world scientific progress.

    If I could go back in time and shoot one philosopher so as to save the world from the hideous irrationality that was unleashed by his ideas, I have often wondered if it would be Rousseau or Kant. This mindlessly-stupid worship of the primitive makes me lean towards Rousseau.

  • Sevo||

    Libertarius|10.25.13 @ 4:24PM|#
    "You just don't understand the horror of the potentiality of backwards third-world agrarians being contaminated by first-world scientific progress."

    This wouldn't bother me one bit, so long as they starved in silence instead of then asking for free assistance.
    Let 'em eat horse-manure.

  • Acosmist||

    So you don't know Kant at all. Cool.

  • Libertarius||

    Bub, Kant is a joke that dilettantes play on themselves; the world is full of philosophy PhDs who don't know what the hell Kant was talking about. But Ayn Rand had his number, and no one has explained (or refuted) his nonsense better than the Objectivists.

    In his attempt to invalidate sense perception, Kant borrowed the Idealism of Plato (the "Noumenal" world) and merged it with the absurd rationalism of Descartes. Love to burst your bubble--there is no such thing as "a priori" knowledge, and cognitive efficacy is not achieved by deducing the facts of reality from floating concepts divorced from percepts. Kant arbitrarily pulled the whole thing out of his ass, in order to save mystic faith and altruism from the Age of Reason (he explicitly said so).

    Kant's lure is that of all intellectual con men: you are seduced by his verbosity and indecipherability; "If it doesn't make any sense, it must be deep." It isn't; Kant muddied the waters to make them look impassable.

  • Sevo||

    "-there is no such thing as "a priori" knowledge,"

    Correct.
    That's called "faith".

  • Acosmist||

    Yep, you don't know Kant at all.

    It's fine. Kant is hard for some people. I have a ball. Perhaps you would like to bounce it.

  • prolefeed||

    If I could go back in time and shoot one philosopher so as to save the world from the hideous irrationality that was unleashed by his ideas, I have often wondered if it would be Rousseau or Kant.

    Marx or Mao or Hitler would be on the top of my list of political philosophers who ran up the body count.

  • ReasonableS||

    Me? I mentioned in the Filippino thread, but I don't recall someone calling me out on it. Why would you say I am lying or an imbecile? Ron Bailey was nice enough to try to correct me instead of resorting to name calling.

    As for the articles that Ron Bailey referenced they concerned farmers who the Supreme Court ruled against were found to have grown Monsanto seeds. That doesn't address farmers who didn't want any of Monsanto's seeds in their fields.

    http://arstechnica.com/tech-po.....-in-court/

    The farmers in this case don't want to be anywhere near the "free ride" Bowman was accused of seeking; rather, they're concerned about "contamination." The Roundup Ready trait makes soybeans resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, but it isn't valuable to them. These farmers oppose the use of glyphosate altogether.

    I thought one of the reasons the local government wanted huge buffer zones was to help people like the organic farmers protect their crops from contamination.

  • Sevo||

    ReasonableS|10.25.13 @ 4:47PM|#
    "Me? I mentioned in the Filippino thread, but I don't recall someone calling me out on it. Why would you say I am lying or an imbecile?"

    Because you repeat the same lies; what should I call someone who does that?

  • ReasonableS||

    Misinformed? You are suppose to disagree with respect in a rational discussion. Attacks on credibility are for people who have nothing else to fall back on.

    I think you are a bit too jaded if your default conclusion is that someone you think has a incorrect position is lying. No one responded to my comments in the Filipino article right away and this forum isn't user friendly enough to allow a casual poster to keep going back to check. I simply missed whatever response I got. However I didn't miss it this time. I am asking you for the sake of a rational discussion to give me the benefit of the doubt or ignore my comments.

  • Sigivald||

    "Some of these laws might be intended to protect small scale farmers from having their crop contaminated by plants that are intellectual property of large Agro-companies." is what you said at the top.

    If the problem is just "not wanting 'contamination'" rather than legal issues, why did you bring up the IP issue?

    IP only matters in a legal context, not in one of notional "contamination".

    Was it just reflex, knowing that the IP issue is actually a non-issue?

    (Now, wanting to avoid glycophosphates from neighboring fields is a vaguely plausible thing... and I'd think existing property rights should cover grounds for a lawsuit there, shouldn't they?

    And if that's what you meant in the first place, you might have tried saying it, not confusing the issue with IP rights.)

  • Sevo||

    "Now, wanting to avoid glycophosphates from neighboring fields is a vaguely plausible thing... and I'd think existing property rights should cover grounds for a lawsuit there, shouldn't they?"

    Pretty sure you're going to have to show damage, and round-up doesn't seem to cause any:
    http://www.npic.orst.edu/factsheets/glyphogen.pdf
    Maybe the courts would enforce an 'I don't like it' claim, but you're getting close to religious practices.

  • Jquip||

    Nah, I can see it. Doesn't mean his argument is valid and sound. But I can completely buy into the notion that some legislator would use that as a premise in passing such a law. Becuase the local judiciary let someone have the pants sued off them.

    It wouldn't be the first time in general, nor in specific. And simply shows that both Jurists and Legislators are incompetent.

  • montana mike||

    Yes and because he is a fucking salonista trolling.

  • Harvard||

    As old as time itself. Fact is, Gregor Mendel fought the same mindset. The German greens, the Pea Stains constantly harassed him.

  • DaveSs||

    A few years back when I visited Kauai seeing all the corn fields gave me a sad.

    This is Hawaii. Where the hell were the pineapples and bananas!! If I wanted to see corn fields I can just drive two miles.

    Post Script: If they are really concerned about environmental damage in Kauai they need to do something about the chickens and cats roaming the island.

  • prolefeed||

    This is Hawaii. Where the hell were the pineapples and bananas!!

    In the Third World countries that have the comparative advantage for growing such stuff (aka "they can grow it cheaper there).

    You can buy local apple bananas in Hawaii, since those don't ship well from Central America and are tastier than regular Cavendish bananas, thus making growing them in Hawaii feasible.

    The people who used to work in the fields in Hawaii don't particularly miss it, BTW.

  • Jquip||

    Notwithstanding the frauds, hysterics, and charlatans that crawl out of the Environmentalists' communal cave everytime something non-human is involved: I don't actually have a problem with this as such.

    If we're talking native species, and natural hybridization, then the law can piss right off. But if we're talking non-native species, then there are good reasons to look at the 'invasive' aspect. For the defining quality of life is that it gets everywhere if you take your eyes off it for a second.

    And when you start speaking of engineering Frankenlife with novel proteins, regulatory pathways, and other considerations? Well, dude, if the potheads can figure out hydroponics, then surely the bio-engineers can also.

    Obligatory go fuck yourself: I'm extremely pro-bioengineering. I strongly want phosphorescent dogs, and 4-legged cucumbers, thank you very much.

  • hotsy totsy||

    What makes you think pineapple is a native species?

  • Sigivald||

    Like the article said, pretty much all the commercial crops (and half the total species, it said) in Hawaii are foreign species anyway.

    That cat was out of the bag when the Polynesians arrived.

  • Jquip||

    No doubt. Doesn't mean we should let loose a bunch of starved leopards next Tuesday. No matter how entertaining it might be.

    It's a property consideration of the same sort Rothbard had about sparks coming off a railroad. Who got there first?

    There's a degree of difference between large animals, plant seeds, bacteria, and virii. Mostly: How big are they? The bigger they are, the easier they are to find, and kill, if needed. And the wind doesn't tend to run off with our leopards.

    This is important when you get into that whole personal responsibility thing. If you're responsible, then you're responsible for the cleaning up the mess.

  • montana mike||

    True about cleanng up the mess but since corn,canola, etc. aren't grown there the likelihood of a mess is non existent using logic.

  • ||

    The fucking haole come try kill the aina braddah. DaKine no aloha brah.

  • optimusratiostultum||

    oh no what will we ever do? our whole planet might get overun by staple cereal crops which make an advanced society possible, the terror!

    I've got it, we will all move to africa that paradise where evil domesticated plants can't grow and then we will all be safe.

  • sheakim11||

    what Antonio replied I cant believe that a mother able to earn $9155 in a few weeks on the computer. visit site
    http://WWW.JOBS72.COM

  • juliajuli7||

    ==========I quit working at shoprite and now I make $30h - $72h...how? I'm working online! My work didn't exactly make me happy so I decided to take a chance on something new… after 4 years it was so hard to quit my day job

    ============
    http://www.works23.com

    Go to website and click Home tab for more details.
    Have a bright future....

  • DWroblickiSr||

    Isn't the reasoning behind all these local laws about the same as for laws against interracial marriage about 150 years ago?

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement