Andrea Noelani Brower’s Seeds of Occupation, Seeds of Possibility charts a path for envisioning a more just and more sustainable food system. Framed around a searing critique of the GMO industry in Hawaiʻi, Brower shows how the oligopolistic control of agricultural industry in the Islands is an important node in broader global struggles for social justice, equitable wealth distribution, sustainable food practices, and more. Several of Hawaiʻi’s islands made national US news in 2015, when grassroots activists succeeded in passing county-level laws that placed important restrictions on GM farming (including pesticide usage). While those laws were eventually superseded by State- and Federal-level laws, the movement importantly galvanized diverse groups within Hawaiʻi who would come to see the food system as critically important to a host of common struggles. Hawaiʻi imports nearly 90% of everything it eats, much of it far more expensive than groceries in other parts of the US. With an extremely high cost of living and dependence on the military and tourism industries for low-wage jobs, working class people in Hawaiʻi have been thrust into sustained economic precarity. This is a system with a structural scope that sometimes feels insurmountable to those who it isn’t designed to serve.

For Brower, Hawaiʻi is at once unique and unexceptional: the islands have become “ground zero” for GMO testing because of its almost year-round growing season. While this is true, it is not the full story. To limit an analysis to climate would suggest that the toxification of Hawaiʻi is a matter of inevitability; the natural site for agrochemical corporate activity. There are, however, other factors at play. “Obfuscation of the underlying, socially determined conditions that give rise to the situation,” she writes, “naturalizes plantations, oligarchies, inequality, and injustice” (3). Seemingly natural systems of extraction actually take a lot of work to maintain.

The author writes from the vantage point of a self-described activist Anthropologist, and as someone who was intimately involved in Anti-GMO community organizing. Such an approach, she argues, goes against an (often false) stance of neutrality. Instead, she writes from and to her home community, with an interest in effecting on-the-ground social and political change. Throughout the book, the reader can see the author’s embeddedness in the multitudes of personal communication she draws on as sources. What that indicates, too, is that the book was written in community and conversation with those most intimately affected by the events chronicled within. Brower is interested, ultimately, in showing that change is possible, even if capitalist systems can seem all-encompassing. Charting out the moments in the Anti-GMO struggle where grassroots resistance chips away at oppressive power, she shows that a different outcome is not a far-fetched dream. Changes are already underfoot.

Brower’s analysis of resistance in the present day is expertly grounded in historical precedents formed by the plantation economies of the nineteenth century. In fact, as she shows, sugar and seed are not so different when we pay attention to the power structures that seek to maximize profit over the well-being of people and place. While she insists that the book is not “about agricultural biotechnology per se,” (5) any reader would be able to glean key points in the broader debates around GMOs. In fact, readers who might feel overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the industry and its political reach would benefit from sitting with this book: its careful attention to global, national, and local frameworks offers a grounded case study. In an otherwise opaque legal and political landscape, Brower is able to make visible the forest for the trees: understanding the industry requires contextual knowledge involving the formation of private property, water rights, labor history, imperialism, and biotechnology. Brower parses through these facets – all equally complex – across nine chapters.  

These chapters treat elements of Hawaiʻi’s status as “GMO Ground Zero” in turn. The first two chapters on the formation of biotech oligopolies focus predominantly on the consolidation of capital and power in the U.S. context, following the trajectory of chemical companies that pivoted their businesses toward gene and seed patenting in the second half of the twentieth century. Linking privatization to profit accumulation, Brower shows how the enclosure of the commons in the service of capitalism ensnares even purportedly public institutions like University research labs and the United States Department of Agriculture. The next three chapters turn to Hawaiʻi and its particular historical context, showing how the agrochemical industry has been overlaid upon the prior sugarcane industry. This is both a geographic and an economic throughline: since the nineteenth century, the majority of privately owned lands in Hawaiʻi has been in the hands of the “Big Five” – sugar-cum-real estate corporations that wielded enormous political power throughout the twentieth century. With power in place, Brower shows how the State of Hawaiʻi has continued to enable new plantation economies to thrive in the Islands despite the clear social and environmental damage it inflicts upon Hawaiʻi’s communities. Maintaining wealth for the few at the expense of the many is, she shows, a lot of work, including resource theft, obfuscation, the exploitation of legal loopholes, and externalizing the costs of business to the most vulnerable.

The final three chapters bring the reader up to contemporary struggles against oligopolist agricultural power in Hawaiʻi. Brower chronicles how ordinary people seek to protect themselves, their homes, and their children from the toxic conditions created by undisclosed pesticide use on seed testing fields. While the previous chapters are rich and comprehensive in their treatment of legal and political contexts, these chapters – for me – shine the brightest. Situating her analysis in discourses about Native Hawaiian self-determination and food sovereignty, Brower offers a real-time look at people power. Anchored in Kanaka Maoli concepts of care, Brower follows the actions of diverse stakeholders who came together to assert their desires for safety and security. In the hands of some scholars, this work would remain focused entirely on what activism outcomes will be for Hawaiʻi. Brower, however, takes a broader view. If people are successful in their resistance to the agrochemical in the Islands, she writes that, “the industry will merely relocate its exploitation, likely to places where protections for people and environment are even more scant and resistance is met with a heavier hand” (156). To truly realize a different food future requires that we plant seeds of resistance generously across all communities threatened by corporate industrial food systems. While the successes are incremental, they help articulate the horizon of alternative futures rooted in abundance, sustainability, and aloha ‘āina.

Andrea Noelani Brower’s sharp and necessary book, Seeds of Occupation, Seeds of Possibility, will find eager audiences in fields like food studies, Indigenous studies, Hawaiian studies, Anthropology, and environmental studies, among others. The layout of the chapters lends itself to handy teachability, making it an ideal text for undergraduate and graduate level syllabi. A potential critique of the book might be that its chapters take on distinct facets of the subject – that some chapters are tightly focused on Hawaiʻi’s case, others on the agrochemical industry’s development on the continent. This, however, also allows for chapters to stand-alone quite well and in conversation with related scholarship, depending on course topic, giving it a lot of classroom versatility.

In the popular imagination, Hawaiʻi sits in isolation (indeed, it’s geographically remote, but certainly not far away in other respects). In other minds, Hawaiʻi is exceptional (as someone engaged in the field of Pacific studies, this rhetoric is a frequent point of critique). At times, these notions are evoked ironically: Hawaiʻi is equated to “paradise” and that ideal leveraged so that we might be shocked when its people or places are mistreated (see, for example, the 2015 report, Pesticides in Paradise put out by the Hawaiʻi Center for Food Safety in response to GMO crop fields). Brower disabuses of those stereotypes: Hawaiʻi is certainly the focus here, but not because it is unique, but because it is entangled in larger, global networks of power. Ultimately, she offers a deeply grounded and carefully composed analysis of this critical moment in contemporary Hawaiʻi food politics. Just as Hawaiʻi would do well to see its local struggles in relation to other sites of consolidated agrochemical power, other places in the world can learn from Hawaiʻi. While the context teaches us about contemporary forms of extraction, dispossession, and degradation, the power of people show us ways forward, despite sometimes seemingly insurmountable odds. Brower’s insistence on different futures – ones that we can already see in formation – carves a vision for liberation, solidarity, and abundance.


Freese B, Lukens A, and Anjomshoaa A (2015) Pesticides in Paradise: Hawaiʻi’s Health and Environment at Risk. Report, Hawaiʻi Center for Food Safety, Honolulu, HI, May. Available here.

Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart (Kanaka Maoli) is an Assistant Professor of Native and Indigenous Studies in the Program in Ethnicity, Race, and Migration at Yale University.