Monday, March 17 marked the beginning of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association (HCIA)/Hawaii Chamber “Biotech Week” in Honolulu. Well-attended by employees of the seed companies and many farmers at the state capital and elected officials, the event reminded everyone of the importance of biotechnology in the agricultural community of Hawaii. During my time there, I was able to hear first-hand accounts of the role that biotech has played in the survival of the papaya industry and the impact of the current Hawaii County ban of GM crops on papaya farmers and ranchers.
The Rainbow Papaya Story is still very much familiar to not only the papaya famers of Hawaii but to the general public as well. In the 1950s, a devastating papaya ringspot virus spread on island of Oahu causing severe economic loses. Papaya production then had to move to the Puna area of the Big Island in the 1960s, but, by 1997, the virus had almost destroyed the industry. Production of Hawaii’s fifth largest crop fell by nearly 40 percent, farmers were going out of business, and Hawaii’s once $17 million papaya industry was struggling to survive.
Then biotechnology becomes the island’s lucky charm. In 1997, the U.S. government concluded its regulatory review of the first genetically engineered papaya variety named Rainbow, which includes a gene that makes the papaya plants resistant to the ringspot virus. Commercialized in 1998, the genetic improvement had not only begun to show promise for the Hawaii papaya industry, but production actually began to return to levels near where they were before the papaya ringspot virus invaded.
With a history like this, it is hard to believe that the county council of the Big Island, formally known as Hawaii County, would ban genetically modified crops. But they did just that and on December 5, 2013 the ban became official and was signed into law by the island’s mayor.
I had the good opportunity to visit with several papaya farmers last week while in Hawaii and listen to how their livelihoods have been impacted by this ban. Joni, who grew up in a multi-generation farming family on the Big Island of Hawaii, has been the recipient of much anti-farmer hate mail and other intimidation tactics. Joni’s blog is a good read for those wanting local flavor on what farmers think about modern ag practices. In her blog, she writes about a concerted effort by anti-farm technology activists to disrupt the social fabric of rural and agricultural based society in Hawaii:
“A small group of people, who don’t share our plantations and farming roots, have decided to unravel at the threads of what made us who we are by using fear and misinformation. Local people have never experienced such kinds of tactics and stand at a crossroad as to how to handle this.”
I also met with Ross a 30 year old family farmer, who is among a group of farmers suing the County of Hawaii as he must now list what he grows and does not trust the county to protect his personal information. He must now provide addresses and the physical locations of GMO plants on his farm, something that he feels will hinder his safety and the safety of his crops. He has experienced vandals cutting down his papaya trees in the past.
Ross and hundreds of other farmers are incensed that not only are they being vilified for their family business and are experiencing sales losses from bad press, but they are also the subject to taunts, harassment and likely loss of property due to this new ordinance. The Big Island has seen literally thousands of papaya trees demolished in the last few years by eco-terrorists. All of these reasons are why Big Island papaya farmers and ranchers are fearful of providing such personal and business information to a county that cannot guarantee confidentiality.
With their future uncertain, area farmers have no other recourse but to stand up for their right to farm. As Joni says in her blog:
“There is a new culture being formed, as to what values the new generation of farmers need to possess. The new local style of handling this needs to be, “SPEAK UP for what you love and honor!”
You can show your support for Joni, Ross and other Hawaiian farmers and growers by signing this Change.org petition.