Published on Jun 25, 2013
Molokaʻi — For a glimpse of the intense debate about the role genetically modified crops can play in combating world hunger, look no further than the 38-mile-long island of Moloka'i.
There, genetically modified crops are grown on an estimated 2,585 acres by two major players in industrial agriculture: Monsanto Hawai'i and Mycogen Seeds, which insists that their efforts offer safe, sustainable and effective ways to grow and protect crops.
But not everyone on Moloka'i is embracing the innovative ways that these major players in their industry are attempting to develop higher-yielding crops that can resist insects, disease and extreme climates.
Among the skeptics is long-time community activist Walter Ritte, a Native Hawaiian who has led efforts to preserve Moloka'i's rural character, including once beating back the cruise industry, which wanted to make Moloka'i a day stop for 2,000-passenger ships.
Now, he's tackling a new threat: bioengineered food.
So it comes as no surprise that Mycogen would invite trustees for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to an informational briefing on June 19 at its headquarters on Moloka'i. The hour-long visit was part of a broader effort by Mycogen to challenge misperceptions that can become accepted as fact as well as prevent misinformation that could jeopardize its reputation.
"A lot of people don't really understand bio technology," said Adolph Helm, a well-respected Native Hawaiian who is part of the senior management team at Mycogen's seed operation on Moloka'i. "We are attempting to help people gain a better understanding. It's not having that education about what we do that creates the problem. We do what we can to have a strong relationship with the community."
For instance, Mycogen has attached its name to dozens of philanthropic projects on Moloka'i, from boosting recycling efforts to helping Moloka'i Middle School address specific technology needs linked to preparing students for a brighter future.
While the company's civic generosity has not gone unnoticed, it also has not overshadowed what skeptics like Ritte described as farming methods that raise questionable health and environmental effects.
"These global corporations are having a negative impact on the Hawaiian community," Ritte said. "We want to get that message out and put in place things that will protect our future generations, so they'll have the same resources that we have today. It's not going to be there if we allow these chemical companies to farm the way they are farming on our island of Moloka'i."
Ritte went on to acknowledge the economic benefits of companies like Mycogen, but was quick to question their true cost to Moloka'i. "The true cost is that they are going to kill our culture and we are going to bear that burden as Hawaiians," he said.
In response, OHA Chairperson Colette Machado, who represents Moloka'i on the Board of Trustees, took comfort from the opportunity to hear both sides of the issue. "As Hawaiians, we are often pushed into a corner to choose between economic prosperity versus what would be best for your community," said Machado, adding that OHA's focus is on getting all the facts. "I believe the meeting with both sides was the first step towards becoming informed. As for me, I will attempt to bring both sides together - if that's at all possible -- but also to repair this community that has been divided far too long."
Produced by OHA Digital Media
Writer: Harold Nedd
Voiceover: Alice Silbanuz
Video & Edit: Ryan Gonzalez
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