No one would be surprised if a presidential election or a decisive senate race held the title of most expensive election by voter in American history. This distinction, however, belongs to a relatively unknown 2014 ballot initiative in Maui County, Hawaii known as the Maui County Genetically Modified Organism Moratorium Initiative.
This ballot initiative in Hawaii did not earn the title of most expensive election per vote by accident. The referendum proposed a moratorium on the growth of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Maui. The debates in the run-up to Election Day were contentious. On one side of the debate stood an American industrial titan: Monsanto. On the other side were Hawaiian citizens who believed that the initiative was key to the preservation of native Hawaiian culture. Hawaiians went to the polls knowing that the vote would determine the future of agriculture on their island. In the end, the Yes camp calling for a moratorium on GMOs won a narrow victory. However, the ballot measure’s result was struck down the next day in federal court.
The referendum was about more than just GMOs and agriculture; it was about preserving Hawaiian culture. Just like in the battle over the Dakota Access pipeline, the dispute in Hawaii reflected the tension between local environmental values and commercial forces. The referendum was the product of a long-running dispute between native Hawaiians and an American corporation. Years before the 2014 referendum, Maui County passed a similar ban that prohibited the genetic modification of kalo, the sacred Hawaiian taro plant. The moratorium was simply an extension of this earlier and more specific regulation of genetic engineering in agriculture.
Commercial agriculture is king in Maui and the largest piece of this industry belongs to Monsanto. Monsanto is the largest agrochemical and biotechnology company in the world. It is also deeply controversial. With annual revenues exceeding $15 billion, Monsanto is both lauded by some as the future of agriculture and attacked by others as a threat to small farms everywhere. The company’s controversial reputation dates back to the 1980s when Monsanto pioneered the use of genetically modified plants in commercial agriculture.
Hawaii is Monsanto’s agricultural center and a frequent testing ground for its new products. Maui has some of the most fertile lands in America. Crops from corn to papayas to coffee flourish in the wet climate and fertile soil, making it the perfect location for an agricultural giant like Monsanto. With 1381 fields in the state, Monsanto tests chemicals, genetically-engineered crops, and sells seeds to other agricultural companies seeking better crops.
Monsanto poured millions of dollars into their campaign against the moratorium. While anti-GMO groups raised and spent about $60,000 in total, Monsanto and Dow Agrosciences spent nearly $7 million. According to Maui County Councilwoman Elle Cochran, this campaign had a major impact. Locals had their televisions, computers, and radios blanketed with ads. Additionally, Cochran said that Monsanto’s financial might and the hope of future campaign donations won the support of many councilmembers. Pro-GMO citizens and politicians also pointed to the economic boon that Monsanto has helped to provide. But Monsanto’s expensive campaign ultimately proved to be unsuccessful at winning the referendum.
Supporters of the moratorium took advantage of several popular apprehensions in Maui about Monsanto. As commercial agriculture becomes more prominent on the island, traditional Hawaiian farming methods continue to lose ground. Supporters of the moratorium, including Councilman Alika Atay, stressed that restricting GMOs would protect small, local farms against large-scale companies like Monsanto.
Many Hawaiians fear that Monsanto will use pesticides excessively and will accidentally release chemicals into the environments if open-air tests go wrong. These concerns are grounded in some history. In 2002, Monsanto paid $390 million to the residents of Anniston, Alabama, where they knowingly released PCB, a harmful chemical, into landfills and creeks, thereby polluting water supplies and soil. In Maui, however, there is no evidence of such foul play.
Perhaps most importantly, supporters of the GMO moratorium warned that GMOs pose a large health risk to Maui. Those who oppose GMOs frequently mentioned the possibility of contamination from genetically-engineered Monsanto crops to non-genetically engineered crops in neighboring fields. Grassroots groups like the Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and ‘Aina (SHAKA) used these popular fears to successfully build support for the moratorium on GMOs in Maui.
However, most of these fears have little scientific basis. While pesticides might pose a risk to ecosystems like Hawaii’s, scientists have nearly universally concluded that GMOs pose no health risks. According to Yale professor of plant biology Stephen Dellaporta, fear of GMOs is unwarranted.
“If the topic was climate change, very few people would be contesting it. But for some reason, with GMOs, the science is just as convincing, but somehow people think it is a controversial topic,” he said in an interview with The Politic.
While Dellaporta acknowledged that pesticides and herbicides pose some risk to the environment and that GMO to non-GMO contamination has happened, he told the Politic that the risk from these factors is negligible. He explained that new forms of herbicide break down in the soil much more quickly than in the older herbicides. According to Dellaporta, the scientific community views the rise of GMOs and the emergence of hardier and more nutrient filled crops as a clear positive.
While its claims are scientifically dubious, the SHAKA Movement’s rhetoric had plenty of shock-value. Its website links to articles that warn readers about dramatic new scientific studies and claim to provide evidence of epidemic-like health risks posed by GMOs. While these articles do not convey legitimate scientific findings, they were effective in creating opposition to Monsanto, even among Maui’s leader. In an interview with the Politic, Maui County Councilwoman Elle Cochran said, “these companies like Monsanto are putting out poison.”
Regardless of the scientific conclusion on the topic, grassroots organizers found enough votes to get a referendum on Monsanto on the ballot, an effort that Cochran called “earth-shattering, history in the making.” Finally, on November 4, 2014, Maui county voters got to make their voice heard formally. They voted on the Maui County Genetically Modified Organism Moratorium Initiative. And the moratorium won. It seemed to the organizers of the vote that the people of Maui had won a massive victory over one of the biggest multinational corporations in the world.
In reality, Monsanto’s work had just begun. Immediately, executives sprang into action trying to block the referendum, which would have halted their essential testing of crops and chemicals and cultivation of GMOs on the island. Pro-GMO organizers, insistent that Maui’s economy depended on support from large agricultural companies, joined the protest.
These efforts proved to be crucial. Just one day after the moratorium was successful at the ballot box, Federal Judge Susan Oki Mollway stepped in and blocked the ban on GMOs from taking effect. Mollway stressed that her decision was not because of the content of the bill, but rather because such a ban preempted state and federal laws.
Nevertheless, Monsanto issued a statement saying that the ruling protected “freedom to plant the seeds of their choice, whether those seeds are conventional, organic, or have biotech traits.”
More than two years after the public referendum, the battle continues. Monsanto has gone to great lengths to ensure that the federal injunction stays in the courts and has invested large amounts of money in elections in Maui county. Similarly, local organizers, led by Maui County Councilman Alika Atay, have upped the pressure on Monsanto. Cochran hopes that a GMO ban is in Maui’s future, but says that she does not see a resolution in the immediate future.