Hawai’i Farmers Union puts family farms first

Alan McNarie

The islands of Hawai'i, the setting of a unique biodiversity and fragile ecosystem, have in the last decade been the nation's main testing grounds for genetically modified crops.

In response to the ethical, environmental, and health concerns that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) bring, the Hawai'i Farmer's Union aims to create a dialogue among local farmers and businesses.

The Hawai'i Farmer's Union held its inaugural annual meeting at Keauhou on Hawai'i Island on November 15. The group is in the process of becoming an official affiliate of the National Farmer's Union, which claims to be the oldest national farmer's organization in the United States.

According to Hawai'i Farmers Union President Eden Peart, some local farmers have belonged to the NFU as "members at large" for years. These members shared a desire to bring the resources and authority of the national group to support Hawai'i family farmers and food sovereignty. Momentum for a Hawai'i chapter grew after farmers attended the NFU's national convention in Orlando, Fl. last February, and became active on the issue of genetically modified crops.

The NFU already had clauses in its official policy supporting a moratorium on the patenting and licensing of new commercial GM crops until various legal and ethical issues had been worked out. But the policy included an exemption for research on such crops. Working through the California Farmer's Union, since Hawai'i didn't have its own chapter, the Hawai'i farmers successfully introduced language limiting GMO research to "environmentally secure facilities" and advocating that retail foods containing GMOs be labeled as such.

Their success provided momentum for the local farmers to organize their own state organization. Peart says that the group already has members on Hawai'i, Maui, Moloka'i, O'ahu, and Kaua'i. Until it completes the process of qualifying as a state chapter, it will operate as an affiliate of the California Farmer's Union.

The local group is still discussing its legislative goals for this year, but those goals may include legislation to control GMOs and to control invasive species through more effective inspections at ports of entry.

With the abundance of GM crops produced on Kaua'i and a recent Hawai'i Council move to ban GMOs, the political stage is already set for the Hawai'i Farmers Union—something its national partners have a long and active history with. In the early 1900s, NFU was one of the groups that pushed for the direct election of U.S. senators (originally, senators were appointed by state Legislatures). It has also been a long-time supporter of conservation efforts, particularly those that involve farmer/government or farmer/nonprofit partnerships.

In recent years, the NFU has successfully promoted legislation to encourage the production of biofuels and to mandate country-of-origin labeling (C.O.O.L.) on commercially retailed foods, and has set up a cooperative that allows many farmers to get carbon offset credits. They get paid for sequestering carbon by planting trees or no-till crops, converting cropland to grass, sustainably managing native range-lands or trapping methane from animal manure for use as fuel. The carbon credits are then sold to businesses such as factories or power plants to "off set" the carbon dioxide (the most common greenhouse gas) that the businesses produce.

In the biggest picture, the chief emphasis of NFU and the Hawai'i Farmers Union has been the protection of family farms while resisting the influences of larger agribusiness corporations.

Hawai'i Farmers Union annual dues are $10 per individual or $20 per family. Membership benefits include subscriptions to the group's publications, $10,000 accidental death and dismemberment insurance, and optional vision and dental insurance. To join or for more information, visit hawaiifarmersunion.org.