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The Hawaiian Farm Conversation

From HCIA, April 18, 2013

Today’s post is brought to your by our good friend and Farm Mom, Katie Pratt, from Dixon, Ill.

By Katie Pratt, Farmer, Dixon, Ill.

By Katie Pratt, Farmer, Dixon, Ill.

In March, My Farmer and I joined four other farming couples in Hawaii to talk to government and media about biotechnology and why it is an important tool on our farms.

Our ticket to the land of sun and sand was writing an essay that described the reasons we chose to use biotech, and how it benefits our farms, our families, our communities and our environments. Each farmer had a very different story to tell. You can read all the essays here.

The “contest” was sponsored by the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, a non-profit trade organization representing the Hawaiian seed industry.  Its member companies include Monsanto, Dow AgroScience, Syngenta, Pioneer and BASF.

So, why talk biotech in Hawaii? Because the majority of the genetics found in our seeds today originate on the islands. Here companies spend money, time and resources researching and developing new hybrids and biotechnologies for use on farms around the world.

The island environment is perfect for this type of work. Researchers can pull three trials off their plots annually. The warm, moist climate offers the challenge of constant insect, weed and disease pressures, allowing scientists to fully test their ideas against all Mother Nature has to offer.

Biotechnology is no stranger to the islands. In the 1990s, the papaya ringspot virus decimated Hawaiian papaya farms. Thankfully, Dr. Dennis Gonsalves, a plant pathologist working at Cornell, but with strong ties to the islands, developed a transgenic papaya resistant to the virus. In 1998 the variety was available to farmers and today the papaya industry thrives.

In spite of that success story and the overwhelming economic, social and environmental benefits of the islands’ seed industry, the anti-biotech movement in Hawaii is fierce, loud and extreme, organizing rallies and marches instead of sharing a table and a civil discussion with seed industry supporters.

During our visit, activists burned two tractors on a Maui sugarcane farm and waved signs and accusations during our events in the state capital. In speaking with employees of the HCIA member companies we learned many receive threats against their families and properties, and one 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.  And in Hawaii, the anti-movement is gaining ground. In 2008, activists successfully achieved a ban on research in coffee and taro, two other important Hawaiian agriculture products.  Last month, the state legislature brought a complex, confusing GMO-labeling bill to the floor.  Although it was not passed, the state is now entering a few years of impact research before making a decision.

Sometimes it is hard to connect our farms with forces beyond our front porch. Whether we farm in Illinois, North Dakota, Washington, Arizona or Georgia, we all are and will be affected by the Hawaiian farm conversation.

I, for one, am pleased that the seeds found in our fields have been researched in these United States by successful companies that choose to operate in this country, pay taxes, and employ fellow Americans in an otherwise not so friendly, sometimes downright dangerous business climate. They could go elsewhere giving the jobs, the money and the innovations to another country. But they stay giving me one more chance to buy American-made.

Want to know more? Check out my three-part series about our Hawaii trip.



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