From Sugar to Monsanto: Hawaii's Occupation by the Agrochemical Oligopoly

05/28/2015 04:16 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2016

This article was originally written for Hawaii Independent.

Hawai'i's year-round growing season is purportedly the main reason that the global agrochemical-seed industry locates in the islands. Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, Syngenta and BASF claim that they operate in Hawai'i solely because of its "natural resource competitive advantage" and that their "contributions...are at no cost to the State." It is certainly true that Hawai'i's climate is favorable for speeding up the cultivation of herbicide-resistant seeds and testing other agricultural technologies. But a lot more than sunshine makes Hawai'i's soils ideal to growing agrochemical industry products, and the social and political arrangements that facilitate the industry's occupation of the islands are neither "natural" nor without public costs.

Neoliberalism and American Imperialism

Hawai'i has long been a subject of US imperialism -- islands used for the generation and extraction of wealth (especially that of agribusiness), and a hub of its military operations. The current occupation of Hawai'i by agrochemical-seed corporations should be situated first in the global conditions that have given rise to the industry in its present form -- neoliberal capitalism and American dominance which, together, facilitate increasingly extensive privatization, corporate power and monopolies. Today just six companies control the worldwide markets in commercial seeds, agrochemicals and biotech traits, forming an oligopoly with tremendous power in the global food system.

While often (erroneously) called "free-market" policies, increasing amounts of government intervention and bureaucracy are required to secure the property rights, markets, and profits of Monsanto and gang. The US government is most allegiant. The US compels other countries to adopt the intellectual property right and "complex mélange of laws" that enable the agrochemical-seed industry to exclusively "own" seeds and restrict farmers from replanting. This state-enforced privatization creates new markets and profit opportunities for corporate agribusiness, while dismantling millennia old arrangements of collective seed saving, sharing, and innovating.

As fewer companies have come to dominate the seed and agrochemical markets, poorer countries and farmers have been made increasingly dependent on global markets and these companies for agricultural inputs. Corporate-dependence is a direct result of neoliberal policy led especially by the US, which encouraged (or forced) retreat of government support for agricultural development while "liberalizing" markets, and devastating smallholder food production systems in the process.

While food producers and consumers rely on regulatory oversight of pesticides for their safety, regulation is a nuisance to the industry and can limit markets and profits. It has become common practice for the US government to campaign, coerce, and sue to weaken or wipe-out pesticide and Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) regulations in other countries, often in the name of "trade."

Of current importance, major proposed new international agreements like the TPPA (Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement) and TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) indicate a push for "harmonizing" participating countries' laws to permit the use of banned chemicals, allow higher levels of pesticides on foods imported from the US, and block public access to "confidential business information" about pesticide ingredients and dangers. Official government "trade" negotiators are agrochemical-seed (as well as oil, tobacco and other major corporate) industry lobbyists, and chemical corporations themselves serve as advisors with access to top-secret proposed agreement text that even Congress members do not have.

Significant US government funds, including national security resources, are spent enforcing and promoting the private interests of agrochemical-seed companies. The US intervenes in other countries' affairs on direct behalf of Monsanto, including to negotiate seed royalty settlements, accelerate approval of their crops, and extend patent lengths. Meanwhile, Monsanto is pursuing mega-mergers that may enable it to avoid paying US taxes.

The US government's commitment to and investment in the agrochemical oligopoly currently roots itself in Hawai'i's soils, considered by many to be an illegally occupied territory. Agrochemical companies locate in Hawai'i because of its (highly contested) place "within" the US. Likewise, the tropical island colony of Puerto Rico is another main site of their experimental operations.

When the seed industry first arrived to Hawai'i in the 1960s, it was made up of dozens of small companies operating on the fringes of plantation lands. Beginning in the 1990s, these smaller companies were acquired by chemical corporations and began expanding onto lands recently vacated by sugar while morphing their operations to reflect the novel directions of the emerging chemical+seed oligopoly -- most notably, growing seeds engineered to be resistant to their herbicides and testing new genetically engineered crops.

Operating within the United States is critical for the patent and other "protections" provided to the industry, as well as for the deregulatory approach taken in regards to worker, human health and environmental protections. The US regulatory system allows for activities that are prohibited in other developed countries, including the use of 82 pesticides barred in Europe. Some of these pesticides are used on an almost daily basis next to Hawai'i homes and schools. At the same time, "trade secret" protections block neighboring residents and even the State of Hawai'i from accessing basic information about open-air pesticide use. In other words, foreign corporations like Syngenta and BASF are permitted, indeed incentivized, to do things in Hawai'i that they are restricted from doing in their home countries.

Operating within the US is also necessary to the fluidity of the agrochemical industry's activities, enabling easy transfer through phases of seed growing and distribution, as well as between R&D and commercialization. Hawai'i has thus become one important node in the global chains of production of the oligopoly controlling the worldwide commercial seed, agrochemical and biotech markets.

Local Policy, from Sugar to Monsanto

Over the past decades, Hawai'i has changed from a landscape dominated by tropical monocrops of sugar and pineapple, to one of agrochemical-seed product development on the peripheries of a tourism-military economy. However, in many ways, today's plantations by Monsanto and Syngenta do not stray far from those of the "Big Five" sugar oligarchy's. Agrochem has directly inherited sugar's infrastructures and institutions, and similarly operates by way of consolidated wealth, power, and resource control, all undergirded by American hegemony and colonialism. As with plantations generally, benefits are largely privatized while costs are socialized.

Without favorable land, water, forest, labor, infrastructure, tax and trade policies, sugar could not have been competitive or profitable on the global market, and the "Big Five" sugar oligarchy could not have held so much wealth and economic control. Likewise, in addition to US government facilitation of product monopolies and corporate dominance, agrochemical operations today are conditioned upon a range of supports from the State of Hawai'i and general public -- including subsidization of land, water, research, infrastructure, pollution abatement and public health costs.

Land acquisition by agrochemical corporations is enabled by Hawai'i's colonial-plantation history of consolidated land control and State management of lands seized from the Hawaiian Kingdom in its overthrow. Like sugar, much of the land that the industry operates on are "State" lands that Native Hawaiians continue to be dispossessed of. Leases include 20-35 year agreements, most for over 2000 acres, at rates as low as $50/acre/year for tillable acres and $1/acre/year for non-tillable acres. Hawai'i's plantation-descendant large landholders similarly lease extensive acreage to the industry, reportedly evicting local farmers and ranchers for the higher paying multinationals.

Essential to the agrochemical companies, these large tracts of prime agricultural lands include irrigation infrastructure from sugar days, some of it maintained with public funds. While Hawai'i's laws guarantee water as a public trust resource, it continues to be diverted for the benefit of Hawai'i's most powerful business and landowning interests, leaving streams dry and Native Hawaiians, local farmers, and other users without water. Earthjustice alleges that the State's Agribusiness Development Corporation is "hoarding" and "dumping" millions of gallons of water daily where they lease lands to agrochemical companies. In addition to irrigation, ex-sugar lands are already equipped with drainage, electrical power, and roadway systems to service the new corporate agribusiness tenants.

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Direct financial contributions provided to agrochemical companies include property tax breaks, General Excise Tax exemptions, and a history of unpaid taxes. Further, in the early 1990s policy-makers began offering investment capital and tax incentives for agricultural biotechnology research and development. A long, sugar-shaped history of cooperative relationship between large industry, federal and island governments, and public and private research institutions continues to operate for the agrochemical companies today. This both sidelines other agricultural research pathways in the public interest, and has raised concerns at the University of Hawai'i about the influence of agrochemical companies on intellectual inquiry.

Amongst subsidies granted to both sugar and the agrochemical industry today, perhaps most lasting is the state-sanctioned impact on the environment, including to marine ecosystems, soil microbes, native species, forests and freshwaters.

Other "externalized" impacts include to worker and public health and economic well-being. Structural poverty and national and local policy together create the conditions for underpaid and under-protected labor in the islands. Federal guestworker schemes enable agrochemical companies to bring in workers from poorer countries who lack the legal protections of citizens. While not well investigated in Hawaii, "guest" workers are systemically vulnerable to debt servitude, wage exploitation, dangerous working conditions, and denial of long-term medical care. Hawai'i is widely-considered one of the worst states for policy protecting victims of human trafficking, including for agricultural labor. The primary anti-slavery organization in Hawai'i says it has documented multiple migrant worker deaths directly attributable to pesticides at both agrochemical company operations and local farms.

While some US states have adopted public-health pesticide regulations to address inadequacies in federal law, Hawai'i has failed to do so. Hawai'i is one of only 19 states without regulations addressing use of pesticides on or near schools. The Hawai'i Department of Agriculture, other State departments, large landowners, the Hawai'i Farm Bureau, and the industry offer remarkably consistent lobbying positions against any and all proposed pesticide regulation. County initiatives for health and environmental protection from agrochemical operations have been blocked by the courts.

While government support for agriculture is absolutely necessary to the public good, what is too often blurred is the difference between support for an agrifood system that contributes to goals of equality and sustainability, and support for large corporate agribusiness. "Agricultural interests" are not uniform or singular -- very different, and sometimes competing, possibilities for Hawai'i's people are at stake. The frequent assertion that the agrochemical companies help to sustain local farming operations neglects the complete story of all that they displace and preclude. Further, it does not account for the wide range of public subsidies and supports that we all pay to their private benefit, and how we could instead direct precious natural resources, infrastructures, institutions and government funds to a different kind of food system and economy.

Hawai'i's sugar oligarchy past left largely intact a mono-economy, today's military and corporate tourism. Economic diversification is a widely-shared policy priority, and the agrochemical industry presents as an appealing "agricultural" and "high-tech" industry alternative, purportedly also contributing millions to the economy. But the industry's claimed contributions say nothing about to whom the vast majority of their benefits accrue, or the "costs" of pesticide exposure and dust that some communities are burdened. We should seek not mere "diversification" of Hawai'i's inequitable and dependent mono-economy -- shifting from a little less corporate tourism to a little more Monsanto agriculture -- but to truly depart from a plantation past. Just as a plantation-structured society is not merely a "natural" matter of sunshine and "market advantage," so too is it not inevitable.