Many images may come to mind when one thinks of Hawaii: tropical beaches, big wave surfing, a fruity beverage underneath palm trees swaying in a light breeze…But what about GMOs? Would it surprise you to know that the Hawaiian Islands have been home to some of the largest GMO experiments in the United States—most of which have nothing to do with the highly celebrated Rainbow Papaya?
Hawaiian Agriculture in a Macadamia Nutshell
Since the arrival of Captain Cook in the 18th century, Hawaiian agriculture has been dominated by foreign interests. Native Hawaiians were increasingly alienated from their land and natural resources as plantation crop agriculture flourished. While remnants of the sugarcane and pineapple industries can still be seen on the islands today, the majority of the plantations have given way to a new type of agriculture: seed crops.
Seed crops are crops grown for breeding purposes or for farmers’ planting stock rather than for food, animal feed, or biofuels production. Although GMO crops were not grown commercially until the mid-1990s, Hawaii, famous for its year-round growing season, was one of the first states to host a GMO crop field trial in 1988. Early tests involved tomatoes, cotton, and corn engineered primarily for herbicide-resistance and/or insect-resistance. Since then, the majority of seeds produced on Hawaii have become GMO. According to a USDA-sponsored database, more permits have been issued for genetically engineered (GE) crop field tests in Hawaii than in any other state in the United States since field tests began in 1987, and Hawaii has a higher density of field tests than on larger mainland states.1
It should be no surprise to hear, then, that Hawaii’s agriculture is now dominated by genetically engineered crops grown by five of the world’s six major agrochemical seed corporations. Like the plantation agriculture that preceded them, these GMO seed crop operations claim much of Hawaii’s valuable farmland and make no contribution to the state’s food needs. In fact, Hawaii actually imports 88% of its food!
This scenario is especially interesting given that consumer awareness of GMOs is at an all-time high and more and more shoppers are reporting an inherent mistrust and uncertainty of GMOs and what’s being done to their food. This has led to a demand for transparency, and over 46% of shoppers now look for the Non-GMO Project Butterfly when shopping—a seal backed by the most rigorous standards for GMO avoidance.
What about the Papaya, a Poster Child for GMO Success?
The papaya plant is native to tropical climates in the Americas. Approximately 75% of the world’s papayas are produced in only ten countries, India being the largest producer. Papaya production in the United States represents only about 0.1% of total world production, which represents approximately 1,700 acres of farmland in Hawaii.
Papaya ringspot virus was introduced to Oahu as early as 1937 but didn’t emerge as a serious economic problem until the 1960s when the virus forced papaya production to be relocated to the Big Island. By 1994, the virus had emerged on commercial farms on the island of Hawaii as well, and production subsequently fell more than 50% between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s. In 1998, the FDA and other regulatory agencies approved genetically engineered papaya, including the Rainbow Papaya and SunUp varieties, that were resistant to the ringspot virus.
The media and biotech industry touted Hawaii’s GMO papaya as a shining example of how GE crops could help feed the world, and the Rainbow Papaya still accounts for 75% of Hawaii’s papaya crop. Concerns remain, however, about the potential impacts of cross-pollination between organic and GMO papaya—organic farmers must be acutely aware of the possibility of contamination by pollen from other plants. Further, as more and more consumers seek to avoid GMOs, the overall success of the experiment may still prove to be unknown.
While the GMO papaya may be a useful tool for some Hawaiian papaya farmers, it’s also important to remember that the majority of GMO crops tested in Hawaii are corn and soy, which together make up 90% of field releases. While biotech may enjoy promoting the GMO papaya as a booming success, it represents less than 0.001% of GMO crop acreage in the U.S.2 The overwhelming majority of commercial GMOs are still engineered to withstand direct application of herbicide and/or to produce an insecticide.
In fact, between December 2013 and July 2015, according to an independent fact-finding task force, seed companies sprayed 18.1 tons of acutely toxic “restricted-use” pesticides on Kauai. These pesticides have been linked to, among many other things, neurological problems and damage to the central nervous system and other organs. GE seed corn production in Hawaii, for example, involves the use of 17 times more restricted-use insecticides than the production of mainland field corn.3 While chemicals can be sprayed on both GMO and non-GMO crops, the correlation between the GMO seed crop industry and pesticide use in Hawaii is sobering.
The intensive use of agrochemicals in seed crop operations also raises environmental concerns, as much of the fertilizers and pesticides applied to the fields is washed off to enter streams and bays or percolate downwards to contaminate precious groundwater resources. Hawaii, isolated and solitary in the middle of the Pacific, is home to over 25,000 unique species, and people worldwide want to see this beautiful biodiversity protected and preserved from harmful industrial agricultural practices.
Hawaiians Fight for Regulations
While GMOs are a hotly contested topic in Hawaii, there are no statutes that specifically address GMO crops in Hawaii at the state level. There have been attempts to ban or impose restrictions on GMO crops in several counties, but these initiatives have been largely invalidated. The labeling of GMO foods will soon be covered by the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard due out later this fall, though the proposed regulations released in May left us with more questions than answers.
There still is, however, a dedicated movement led by local communities and leaders demanding protection of Hawaii’s environment and its citizens, as well as a more sustainable food system. For example, in the last few years, thousands of Kauai citizens have marched in protest of GMOs and pesticide spraying. Let’s hope their voices will be heard, and the safety, health, and values of this beautiful island paradise will be preserved for generations to come.