Hawaii anti-GMO 'corruption' scandal? Genetic Literacy Project investigation underway

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Papayas are ready for sale at an outdoor fruit kiosk in Haiwaii.

Article Highlights

  • Activist leaders opposed to crop biotechnology have attempted to frame this battle as David vs. Goliath.

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  • For nearly a decade, an impressionable anti-GMO mob mentality has been carefully cultivated on Hawaii island.

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  • The GLP believes it is important that the public and elected officials in Hawaii County know how much money is being spent by advocacy groups.

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It’s shaping up to be an ugly week on Hawaii Island. Beginning in Hilo on Wednesday, September 4, the island Council will again debate controversial measures designed to curtail the growing of genetically modified crops on the island.

The Battle over GMOs on both Hawaii and Kauai has been rancorous, threatening to tear apart the aloha spirit that has defined the Hawaiian Islands for centuries. The ‘public discussion’ took a sharply political turn in May when Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille brought forward Bill 79, which banned GMOs but proposed to exempt the GMO Rainbow papaya crop, which is credited by scientists and independent experts for rescuing the papaya on Hawaii from extinction threatened by the ringspot virus.

Bill 79 was widely regarded as a scientific and political mess, as the independent website Biofortified.org noted in its analysis. The committee held four days of public comment sessions, with tensions running high and the debate turning personal. Wille withdrew the bill in early August after the hearings and a Council discussion made it clear that it was poorly written.

Now Wille is back with a similar measure. (The GLP publishes a response to the bill below provided by the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association.) But this time, she has dubious company. South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford has introduced her own “book burning” measure, proposing that all papaya fields be cut down and burned—the position supported by the more radical anti-GMO activists who have come to dominate the anti side of the debate.

Funding corruption by anti-GMO campaigners?

Activist leaders opposed to crop biotechnology, such as Walter Ritte, the Molokai-based political activist, have attempted to frame this battle as David vs. Goliath, threadbare grassroots campaigners fighting Big Ag. Although they claim their opposition to the innovative technology is home grown, a Genetic Literacy Project investigation, still in its infancy, suggests that the opposition is flush with cash, getting hundreds of thousands of dollars each year from mainland anti-GMO organic organizations that have an ideological stake in blocking new farming technologies.

For nearly a decade, an impressionable anti-GMO mob mentality has been carefully cultivated on Hawaii island, but documents reviewed by the GLP suggest this increasingly ugly turn has been nurtured by slick and well financed outsiders. They also raise disturbing questions about the possible misreporting of campaign contributions by Walter Ritte, suggesting there may be violations of Hawaiian election financing and disclosure law.

The GLP’s preliminary investigation focuses in part on Hawaii Seed, which appears to be funded substantially by an activist Minnesota private foundation known as Ceres Trust, which calls itself an “organic research” organization. Ceres has in recent years pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into two major allied groups: Hawaii Seed and the Center for Food Safety (CFS).

The 2011 tax return of Ceres Trust, date-stamped in November 2012 by the IRS, shows that it gave $145,490 to Hawaii Seed and $550,000 to the Center for Food Safety in 2011. Ceres Trust gave another $650,000 to the Center for Food Safety in 2010.

Both Hawaii Seed and CFS Safety have been active in lobbying and organizing public support throughout 2012 and 2013 on behalf of GMO labeling legislation in Hawaii State—without once disclosing their direct financial links to each other and to Walter Ritte. There is also no information on Hawaii Seed’s website about its board of directors or its major donors—a complete lack of disclosure.

Did Walter Ritte violate Hawaii’s campaign spending law?

Ceres founders and other mainlanders also funneled campaign contributions directly to Walter Ritte in 2012 for his race for a vacant seat on the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. A report submitted to the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission by Ritte shows two Ceres Trust trustees, Kent Whealy and Judith Kern, as each giving $6,000 to his campaign. The campaign contributions report filed by Ritte shows an address for Whealy and Kern in Pahoa on the Big Island, although there is no evidence that the Ceres trustees are residents of Hawaii. (During 2012, Whealy gave $1 million to the California anti-GMO labeling campaign ballot initiative and listed Decorah, IA as his home address.

The campaign also listed $5,000 from Susan and John Scarlett (CEO of Geron, a biotechnology company based in Menlo Park, CA). The Scarletts’ address is listed on Molokai, but there is no evidence that the couple are residents of Molokai.

Hawaii’s campaign spending law, Chapter 11, Part XIII, Section 11-362 states: “Contributions limited from nonresident persons. Contributions from all persons who are not residents of the state at the time the contributions are made shall not exceed thirty percent of the total contributions received by a candidate or candidate committee for each election period.” About 80% of Ritte’s campaign money came from out-of-state contributors, an apparent violation of the spending law.

Ritte has served as a past board director of Hawaii Seed. Ritte and CFS director Andrew Kimbel appeared together at a Hawaii SEED event in January, when he accused elected officials on the island of corruption and supported “driving these criminals off this island.”

Ritte’s report to the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission can be reviewed online here. The GLP has emailed Ritte the above paragraphs, requesting a response or clarification, but has not yet heard back. If we do, we will update this story accordingly.

The GLP is also tracking ‘soft money’ contributions to Hawaii Seed and other anti-GMO groups funneled through the People’s Fund in Honolulu, which, through its grant-making activity, has taken an openly anti-GMO stance. People’s Fund has disbursed grants to various activist groups throughout Hawaii without disclosing the amount of each grant award in its tax returns.

The People’s Fund lists grants to:
- Hawaii SEED in 2009 and 2007
- KAHEA-The Hawaiian Environmental Alliance in 2013, 2011, 2010, 2008, 2007 and 2005
- GMO-Free Maui in 2004 and 2005
- GMO-Free Hawaii in 2005
- Hawaii Organic Farming Association in 2002
- Hawaii Food Policy Council in 2011
- Seeds of Hope in 2013

However, the dollar amount of each of these grants is not reported on the People’s Fund web site. Nor is it reported in the 990-PF tax returns of the People’s Fund. Instead, the People’s Fund simply reports a total of all grants disbursed to its various causes each year. In 2011, it showed a total of $85,744 in grants to “various grantees”; in 2010, a total of $63,225; and $90,441 in 2009.

Contributions made by the Ceres Trust to Hawaii SEED and/or CFS in 2012 and 2013 will remain unknown to the public until receipt of 990-PF tax forms by the IRS and subsequent posting on Guidestar.com in 2014-2016. Thus, the financial support of mainland foundations for advocacy and lobbying activity on behalf of anti-GMO legislation in the Hawaii State Legislature and County Councils will not be disclosed until several years after such expenditures have influenced public discourse and decision-making.

Another anti-GMO group, Hawaii Genetic Engineering Action Network, shows 990 returns on Guidestar only up to the 2009 calendar year, or tax year ending June 30, 2010. That return shows income of:
- $50,306 in 2005
- $52,060 in 2006
- $55,165 in 2007
- $90,907 in 2008
- $227 in 2009

$248,665

At last report, GEAN’s officers were Nancy Redfeather, President, and Pamela Greenway, Secretary/Treasurer. It is based in Captain Cook on the Island of Hawaii. What did GEAN do with the $248,665 received from 2005-2009? Has it received more money since then?

Are anti-GMO activists eluding public scrutiny by presenting themselves as charitable “educators”? Will Hawaii County barrel forward, pressured by what increasingly looks like ill-considered momentum to “do something”—or will elected officials proceed deliberately and consider the full political, legal and economic context of this debate, while carefully examining the mainland financial roots of the anti-GMO movement?

The GLP believes it is important that the public and elected officials in Hawaii County know how much money is being spent by advocacy groups, who is behind the activities of self-proclaimed “grassroots” activists, and which 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations have contributed to transforming what could be a civil discussion about Hawaii’s farming future into a kangaroo court-like anti-science proceeding.

The GLP investigation is still unfolding. Stay tuned.

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication and STATS (Statistical Assessment Service) at George Mason University.

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