I went to college in San Francisco and wrote for the university's paper. It was not uncommon to see activists of all stripes.
Bike messengers wanted equal rights with automotive commuters. Students were driving military recruiters off campus. The pole dancers' union (Local 790) wanted a better contract. You name it, we saw it.
Then there was Monsanto. It didn't seem real. My friend from Santa Cruz provided the perfect catchphrase for the anti-Monsanto movement: "Blame it on Monsanto."
It was rumored that Monsanto's corn seeds were spreading uncontrollably in Mexico. Monsanto seeds supposedly spread to fields and farms that nobody wanted, and started contaminating the indigenous strains of corn.
I was skeptical. That was preposterous, I thought. It had to be another fable made up by neo-hippie activists that need to get out of the Bay Area every now and again.
In law school, Monsanto came up again, but only in passing. I learned that ultraconservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas worked for Monsanto as a young lawyer soon after graduating from Yale Law School in the 1970s. By then, I was living in Kansas, where the only protesters were for the right.
I never thought Monsanto would find its way to the islands, but I was wrong. Monsanto's here. The fields along Piilani Highway at the entrance to Kihei are Monsanto products. There is an even more visible presence on Molokai and in Central Oahu. Kamehameha Schools has been leasing land on Oahu to Monsanto since 1999. The Monsanto seed company brings in more money to the state than sugar and pineapple. This industrial giant is a new player in the islands and is considered a rising star in the business community.
The protesters came here too. On the north shore, anti-Monsanto graffiti appears on stop signs, the bunker-turned-message-board next to Maliko Gulch, and even on that bike path between Paia Bay and Baldwin Beach Park. This year, there have been two large protests in Kahului in which folks gathered to march against the company.
A lot of the anti-Monsanto folks on Maui are cousins of the Northern Californians. In fact, some are former Northern Californians. But before we just wipe off the graffiti and marginalize the protesters as bourgeois Mainlanders, consider Vernon Bowman.
Bowman is not your average anti-Monsantonian. He would most definitely stand out in the vitamin room at Mana Foods. He's a 75-year-old soybean farmer from Indiana. Bowman bought Monsanto's soybean seeds that were resistant to Roundup and other herbicides. Monsanto products like this one are limited to a single harvest and require purchasing new seeds every year. Bowman bought Monsanto seeds secondhand at a grain elevator and used them late in the planting season. He even considered them subpar seeds.
Monsanto sued for patent infringement and won around $84,000. The case went up to the United States Supreme Court earlier this year. Justice Thomas did not recuse himself, but it didn't matter. The high court ruled unanimously for Monsanto. When it handed down the ruling in May, Monsanto had already sued 466 farmers and smaller agriculture businesses in 2013 alone. So maybe Monsanto protesters aren't just wackos.
On the other hand, Monsanto says that their fears are misguided. Monsanto products are not going to hurt organic farmers. They will not cross-pollinate with indigenous and native plants, and they are safe to consume.
In fact, Monsanto likes to point to the papaya case to show that genetically modified foods have a place here. Local farmers have fought against the papaya ringspot virus since the 1940s. By the 1990s, it threatened the very existence of papayas in the islands. To combat the problem, the government introduced a genetically modified and virus-resistant papaya.
The "rainbow" papaya created a buffer zone that allowed farmers to harvest an organic, nongenetically modified strain of papaya. It was a perfect example of organic farmers and agribusiness working together for the benefit of the community.
Now it seems that the Big Island may be banning even that papaya.
On top of its attempts to allay such fears, Monsanto is giving back to the community. It awards public schools thousands of dollars to fund science programs and horticulture. The company also provides much-needed jobs on Molokai and has helped to diversify our state's tourist-based economy. State and local governments are happy with the revenues and support, and they like relying on something other than the tourist industry.
Genetically modified foods and tampering with the building blocks of our food will never sit well with us. It's a new frontier. On the other hand, science is about exploring the unknown to make life better. The more involved Monsanto becomes in Hawaii, the more people will want to know about it and its seeds.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is email@example.com. "The State of Aloha" alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis' "Neighbors."