Last fall I saw the announcement for the Views from the Farm essay contest sponsored by the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association (HCIA). Farmers were asked to write an essay explaining how biotechnology works on their farms. The winners received a trip to the Aloha State where they would tell their farm story, and then have time to “hang loose”, tour the island, lay on the beach, drink a mai tai, hula at a luau (that comes after the mai tai), and in general, vacation. Not something many farmers consider.My Farmer, however, issued the directive to write an essay. So I did and was notified in January that we were heading to Hawaii. A-lo-HA!
The beauty of the islands.
Joining us were four other farming couples with very different farm stories to tell. You can read their essays at http://www.hciaonline.com/news-media/views-from-the-farm/.
Here’s some background: The HCIA is a non-profit trade organization representing the seed industry. Its member companies include Monsanto, Dow AgroScience, Syngenta, Pioneer and BASF. These companies are using the amazing island climate to study and research the viability of new hybrids, biotechnologies and best management practices. They can pull three trials off their plots in a year. The HCIA website has even more information about the history of the organization, its mission, purpose, and activities.
Talking about our farm and the fact that we do use biotechnologies has become part of what I do, not only as a Face of Farming & Ranching for the US Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, but as a farmer who is engaged in what is becoming a respectful, civil, two-way conversation about food production in our country. So, telling our story to one more audience who just happen to reside in Hawaii didn’t seem like a big deal.
Upon arrival we met Alicia Maluafiti, executive director of the HCIA, and quickly learned this would not be a conversation but a desperate effort to connect the islands’ seed industry to the end-users – farmers on the mainland and world-wide consumers.
I say desperate because the anti-movement on the islands is loud and extreme, organizing rallies and marches instead of sharing a table and a civil discussion with seed industry supporters. Last week activists burned two tractors at the only sugarcane farm left on the islands. (See comments section for more information about the whos, whats and whys of tractor burnings on Maui). We spoke to employees of the HCIA member companies and learned that many are receiving threats against their families and properties.
Because of threats to his farm, one high-profile farmer is cancelling interviews and reconsidering his role in farm organizations. Another individual told us she had purchased a gun for protection at her home.
The arguments against the seed industry are steeped in the history of the Hawaiian Islands, but also in the anti-Monsanto, anti-gmo rhetoric that grips so much of the food conversation today. Opponents want the seed industry ousted and good riddance to the jobs, tax dollars and any environmental stewardship it provides. They want the land to be used toward a more sustainable Hawaii, raising food to support the island residents as well as the millions of tourists who visit each year.
Here’s a few “by the numbers” points:
- Hawaii currently imports 80 to 90 percent of its food.
- 1,110,000 acres of its land is considered arable, and of that the seed industry covers just five percent.
- Currently 7,500 farmers farm on the island raising mostly nursery crops, vegetables and fruits.
- More than 7,627,000 people visit the islands each year, and this number is from 2007.
I still can’t quite wrap my mind around the volatile situation we discovered and am dumbfounded that we are talking about Hawaii, the fiftieth state, fellow Americans who live, breathe and work under the same pillars of democracy and freedom that I do. Yet the rage against the machine mentality is like a freight train careening along the tracks. No brakes.
Obviously, there is so much more to share. In future blog posts, I’ll introduce you to Dr. Dennis Gonsalves, a Hawaiian scientist who engineered the transgenic papaya and saved an island industry. I’ll also introduce the activists, including the group Babes Against Biotech. You can google them if you want. I’ll also spend some time on the importance of Hawaii and its seed industry to me as a farmer and as an American.
Follow this series:
In the Land of Sun & Sand: Part 2