It would be difficult to overstate the impact the sugar industry has had on the economy, politics, land and people of Hawai’i since it gained a foothold in the mid-nineteenth century. King Sugar, as it’s known, precipitated the overthrow of the sovereign Hawaiian monarchy and subsequent U.S. annexation of Hawai’i, spurred the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Chinese, Japanese and Filipino workers, and transformed the islands’ pristine topography through widespread deforestation and agricultural conversion.
With the closure of Hawai’i’s last sugar mill in 2016, the reign of King Sugar has come to an end. A victim of the same global economic forces that once fed its power, it simply could not compete against cheap sugar from Brazil and Asia, where migrant farmworkers are paid less for the backbreaking labor required to harvest sugar cane.
But this project is not about King Sugar, at least not directly. In 2014, I traveled to Oahu to better understand the food system that is emerging, often contentiously, from the ashes of the Hawaiian sugar industry.
With a glut of fallowed land once dedicated to growing sugar cane, divergent visions have emerged of how to put that land to use. Progressive voices call for the development of a more diversified agricultural economy, one that could boost Hawai’i’s agricultural exports and nourish Hawai’i’s people—a sensible goal for a state that has abundant arable land and a year-round growing season but imports 70 percent of its produce and 90 percent of its meat.
In practice, however, biotech seed companies like Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta, BASF and DuPont/Pioneer have been pursuing a land grab, transforming a staggering amount of Hawai’i’s prime farmland into an industrial-scale GMO seed lab. Activists, organizers, policy wonks, politicians, farmers and even chefs are all pushing back against what they see as biotech’s usurpation of local efforts to establish a more sustainable food system—built on principles of economic, social and environmental justice—that might begin to move Hawai’i beyond the complex legacy of King Sugar.