Tales from Paradise: Analyzing Hawaii’s GMO Conflict

Tales from Paradise: Analyzing Hawaii’s GMO Conflict

When Captain James Cook happened upon an archipelago of verdant volcanic peaks in the middle of the Pacific, he named his discovery the Sandwich Islands after his sponsor, the fourth Earl of Sandwich. The name never seemed to fit the graceful culture and majestic tropical landscape of Hawaii, but the title did prove to be ideal for the Earl’s famous lunch and teatime invention.

When Monsanto and other biotech companies discovered Hawaii, it was not to honor Sandwich, but to reinvent food itself. As Captain Cook learned in his final moments, however, the generous aloha spirit won’t long tolerate offenses against the people and the land. Eventually the natives get restless.

That is what happened when multinational biotech companies discovered that the islands were an ideal laboratory for growing, testing and perfecting genetically-modified (GMO) seeds. Apart from the concerns that many scientists and consumers have about GMO plants, the industrial operations released plumes of chemicals into the air that coated the land with layers of toxic red dust.

Soon residents in Kauai, Maui and the Big Island were organizing, with ballot initiatives and protests to preserve the atmosphere they had always known — one healthy for people, safe for birds, and welcoming to rainbows. Some of the resistance tactics were uniquely Hawaiian. During one protest in Maui, a group planted two acres of sweet potatoes, banana starts and more than 100 coconut trees.

The world’s largest biotech companies that dominate seed production – Monsanto, Dow, Pioneer-DuPont, BASF, and Syngenta – had each established vast testing grounds in the state, consuming thousands of acres once owned by sugar and pineapple plantations.

The subtropical climate is perfect for testing GMO corn, as well as soy, canola, and rice varieties. Some biotech companies boasted that every ear of GMO corn at the local market spent part of its life cycle sunning itself in a Hawaiian field.

What made this an atmospheric issue is the fact that GMO seeds go hand-in-hand with pesticides. In fact, that’s the whole point. Plants are bred to resist the powerful pesticides that will be applied to the new plant varieties in the field, pesticides that are highly effective at eradicating costly pests such as an especially unwanted tourist, the European corn borer. The plants are resistant to the toxins, but bugs have no such defense, which some scientists believe may also be true for the consumer at the top of the supermarket food chain.

Testing new GMO varieties necessarily involves spraying fields with round after round of pesticides to gauge the resilience of the plants. Nearby communities are affected the most, but these atmospheric toxins cannot be contained to property owned by the industrial seed operations.

“Often when people think of atmospheric toxins they think of the factory down the street, billowing pollution from tall smokestacks, or they think of car emissions, or even pathogens circulating in indoor environments,” notes Canadian scientist Hamza Mbareche, who has studied airborne hazards extensively. “But some of the most omnipresent airborne threats come from operations we consider to be routine, such as the cultivation of crops.”

As a researcher, Hamza Mbareche has been credited with making more than 20 important discoveries in the field of aerosol science, and has published his findings in over 30 peer-reviewed articles.

Last year the Hawaiian GMO conflict reached a crescendo, with Monsanto admitting to a variety of toxic atmospheric incidents. As the Associated Press reported: “The Monsanto Company pleaded guilty … to illegally using and storing agricultural chemicals in Hawaii, and will pay $12 million in fines. Monsanto was charged with 30 environmental crimes after allowing workers to go into corn fields on Oahu in 2020 after a product named Forfeit 280 was sprayed. Monsanto was sentenced to three years of probation in addition to the fines and will continue an ‘environmental compliance program’ overseen by a third-party auditor. The company also pleaded guilty to two felonies related to the storage of a banned chemical on Maui and Molokai.”

Hawaii’s struggle to contain the atmospheric collateral damage of biotech testing fields is not over, but neither has paradise been lost. Moving forward, Hamza Mbareche urges consumers and community leaders alike to keep the focus on the relationship between GMO plants and pesticides. 

“As GMO plant varieties have expanded their market share, pesticide use has also increased significantly,” Mbareche points out. “This isn’t a glitch in the system — this is the system.”