Skip to content Skip to footer

In the Belly of the Chemical Beast: Hawaiian Activists Confront Syngenta on Its Home Turf

Hawaiian activists traveled to Syngenta’s headquarters in Switzerland to demand that the agrichemical giant stop spraying poisons on their island.

The Kaua'i delegation joins activists from the Basel-based anti-globalization group MultiWatch at a protest outside of a Syngenta shareholders conference. (Photo: Mike Ludwig/Truthout)

Part of the Series

I first met Malia Chun in late 2013, in front of her home on the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i, where she pointed between the houses across the street to a nearby field where the agrichemical giant Syngenta tests and produces genetically engineered corn treated with a considerable amount of pesticide.

I met up with Chun again a year and a half later, this time in Syngenta’s front yard in Basel, Switzerland. After a short ride through winding, medieval streets on the city’s famously punctual public transit, we took pictures outside the tall office building that serves as Syngenta’s global headquarters, where a security guard told us we had no chance of getting inside without an employee escort. Unimpressed, Chun asked two university students sitting nearby if they were familiar with Syngenta. The students said they knew that Syngenta sold pesticides, and that a few weeks ago, demonstrators had hung a sign from the building in protest of chemicals thought to harm bees.

“Are you from Greenpeace?” one of the students asked.

“No,” Chun replied. “I am from Hawai’i.”

Traveling with a small delegation from her island, Chun came halfway around the world to confront Syngenta as both a mother and a practicing teacher of Native Hawaiian culture. Chun and others in her community suspect the pesticides may be responsible for an uptick in health problems such as asthma and birth defects, including several cases where babies were born with their intestines outside of their bodies. “As far as pesticide exposure goes, it’s most harmful to children, both born and unborn,” Chun said. “It’s also a direct desecration of our culture.”

“As far as pesticide exposure goes, it’s most harmful to children. It’s also a direct desecration of our culture.”

For the past three years, a growing coalition of activists and civic leaders on Kaua’i has been battling Syngenta and three other agrichemical companies – BASF, DuPont Pioneer and Dow AgroSciences – over toxic pesticides the companies spray as they field test and produce genetically engineered seeds, which are also known as genetically modified organisms or GMOs. The four companies spray thousands of gallons of pesticides labeled “restricted use” by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at their farms and test plots on Kaua’i each year. At least five of the 22 restricted-use pesticide formulas used on the island contain chemicals that have been banned in Switzerland due to environmental and human health concerns, but are perfectly legal in the United States as long as they are applied by licensed workers.

In November 2013, after a year of fierce public debate that galvanized an anti-biotech movement on Kaua’i and divided an otherwise tight-knit island community, the Kaua’i County Council passed Ordinance 960, a law aimed at regulating restricted-use pesticides at a local level. The four companies, along with a local coffee producer, would have been required to observe buffer zones around schools and hospitals, publicly disclose the pesticides they use, and notify neighboring communities about when and where the chemicals would be sprayed, so, as Chun says, “we can close our windows.” An environmental impact study would have been conducted to determine if the pesticides are impacting local ecosystems and contributing to a suspected uptick in birth defects and other health problems in neighborhoods near the agribusiness fields on Kaua’i’s west side.

“It’s a small law,” said Gary Hooser, a county councilmember who authored Ordinance 960 and traveled with Chun to Basel. “Just tell us what you are spraying, and don’t do it next to schools.”

However, the four agrichemical companies, which compete with each other in global markets and consider the details of pesticide applications and experiments on their GMO test plots to be proprietary and confidential, joined forces and filed a lawsuit challenging Ordinance 960 shortly after it passed. In 2014, a federal judge ruled that state law preempts any local pesticide regulation and threw out the law. Kaua’i County is currently appealing the ruling with the help of environmental groups, raising crucial questions for any local community attempting to set ground rules for global agribusinesses.

Hooser said that agribusiness officials told him they did not oppose Ordinance 960 because it would be difficult to comply with the law; they were simply worried that any successful effort to establish local regulations would set a precedent that could be duplicated by other communities. Multinational corporations don’t want to comply with a patchwork of local regulations on top of those already enforced by national governments, and despite heavy political pushback from the industry, anti-GMO momentum did indeed spread across the Hawaiian islands. The county governments on Maui and Hawaii’s Big Island followed Kaua’i’s lead and passed their own ordinances focused more on blocking GMO cultivation than regulating pesticides. Those laws were also thrown out in court after legal challenges from the industry.

Banned in Switzerland but Not the US

I joined Chun’s delegation from Kaua’i at a conference on Syngenta hosted by MultiWatch, a Basel-based activist group that keeps tabs on Swiss multinational corporations. If MultiWatch and its allied organizations are any evidence, then the anti-globalization movement, which challenges the international trade policies that allow corporations and rich countries to openly push their agendas on the poor, is alive and well in Switzerland.

A security guard looks on as Hawaiian activist Malia Chun poses in front of Syngenta's global headquarters in Basel, Switzerland. (Photo: Mike Ludwig/Truthout)A security guard looks on as Hawaiian activist Malia Chun poses in front of Syngenta’s global headquarters in Basel, Switzerland. (Photo: Mike Ludwig/Truthout)

Switzerland is one of the world’s wealthiest countries, and in 2013, the average Swiss adult had more wealth than adults living in any other country in the world. A Swiss union organizer told me that one of labor’s biggest challenges is “organizing white-collar workers” who just don’t seem to understand the concept of solidarity. In 2014, Switzerland held a referendum to establish the world’s highest minimum wage at $4,000 Swiss francs a month, the equivalent of about $25 an hour, but voters rejected the proposal. (The cost of living is also high, and at one point on the trip I paid about $7 for lip balm at a popular pharmacy.) Like Syngenta, many large, multinational corporations keep central offices – not to mention bank accounts – in Switzerland, providing high-paying jobs and tax revenues to the Swiss while doing their dirty work anywhere else.

Basel is a world away from Kaua’i, where Syngenta carries out controversial practices that are considered illegal in Switzerland.

Syngenta employs 2,500 people across Switzerland and maintains the image of a good corporate citizen in its hometown of Basel. That image is so good, in fact, that Syngenta was chosen by city officials to represent Basel at the 2015 World’s Fair in Milan. The theme this year is “Feeding the World, Energy for Life,” and the company says that its exhibition in the Swiss pavilion will highlight “the challenges of food security and showcase the importance of innovation and partnership in the development of sustainable agriculture solutions.” MultiWatch and other groups say Basel should be ashamed, and are petitioning to have Syngenta replaced.

Syngenta's corporate headquarters in Basel, Switzerland. Several of the pesticides that Syngenta sells across the world and uses on GMO test plots in Hawai'i are banned in Switzerland and other European countries. (Photo: Mike Ludwig/Truthout) Syngenta’s corporate headquarters in Basel, Switzerland. Several of the pesticides that Syngenta sells across the world and uses on GMO test plots in Hawai’i are banned in Switzerland and other European countries. (Photo: Mike Ludwig/Truthout) Basel is a world away from Kaua’i, where Syngenta and the three other agrichemical companies carry out controversial practices that are considered illegal in Switzerland. Swiss voters approved a five-year moratorium on GMO crop cultivation in 2005, and the national parliament has voted twice to extend the moratorium, which will be reconsidered again in 2017. Open-air tests of new GMO seeds that have yet to receive government approval were banned in Switzerland and other European countries years ago, but Syngenta and other companies continue to perform them regularly in Hawai’i.

Virtually all biotech seeds have spent time in development in Hawaiian fields, where agrichemical companies can take advantage of long tropical growing seasons to test and develop new crop varieties. Since the late 1980s, Hawai’i has hosted more open-air field tests of experimental GMO crops than any other state in the United States, according to an analysis of government data by the Center for Food Safety (CFS). Most of the GMO crops tested on Hawaiian islands are genetically engineered to tolerate herbicides sold along with them, and only a few contain traits to enhance nutritional value or disease resistance.

Open-air field trials are also held in the sprawling fields of the US Midwest, but an island has much less space for agriculture than, say, Nebraska, so field trials in Hawai’i are much more densely concentrated. CFS contends that Hawaiian residents are therefore more likely to live within close proximity to a field (and thus, more likely to be impacted by pesticide drift) than rural residents on the mainland. The inbred corn varieties grown for seed breeding require more pesticides because they are more vulnerable to pests than varieties grown for food stocks, and testing herbicide-resistant crops obviously requires the chemicals designed to go with them. Corn farmers in the Midwest typically spray pesticides in the spring and early summer, but Hawaii’s long growing seasons require more consistent chemical applications throughout the year. Kaua’i seed corn is treated with 17 times more restricted-use insecticides than corn grown on the mainland, according to CFS.

Syngenta and the three other companies on Kaua’i applied about 3,000 pounds and 2,100 gallons of restricted-use pesticides over the past 16 months, according data voluntarily supplied by the companies to a state-run database. The data does not include herbicides and pesticides such as glyphosate that are not labeled “restricted-use,” so the total amount of chemicals sprayed on Kaua’i GMO plots is likely much higher. Earlier estimates, based on restricted-use pesticide sales on Kaua’i from 2010 and 2012, the only data publicly available at the time, suggest that up to 18 tons of restricted-use pesticides are used on Kaua’i every year.

Syngenta’s Toxic Legacy

Syngenta is the global leader in pesticide sales and the major manufacturer of paraquat and atrazine, two of the world’s most popular and controversial herbicides. Atrazine is considered an endocrine disruptor and a possible carcinogen that can cause reproductive problems, and the chemical is known to persistently contaminate water. Paraquat dichloride is a toxic chemical that is highly poisonous to humans and has been linked to endocrine disruption and Parkinson’s disease. Both chemicals are banned in Switzerland and the European Union, but agribusiness firms on Kaua’i purchased more atrazine and paraquat than any other restricted-use pesticide from 2010 to 2012, according to government records released to Councilman Hooser.

The Kaua’i delegation took their concerns about Syngenta and its chemicals to three of Basel’s local lawmakers, who admitted that Syngenta pays a lot of taxes to keep its headquarters in the city. (MultiWatch activists said the company spends a good amount supporting politicians as well.) After hearing Chun and Hooser describe Syngenta’s behavior on the west side of Kaua’i, the lawmakers agreed that the company should be held to the same standards abroad as it is at home. They conceded, however, that there is only so much a local government can do. As members of the progressive Green and Social Democratic parties, they could pass a resolution in solidarity with Kaua’i, but it would not attract enough votes to pass the 100-member county parliament.

“They came in looking like the shining knights. Nobody asked questions until people started getting sick.”

Controversies over chemicals are nothing new in Basel, and the local lawmakers knew exactly what the Hawaiians were talking about when they said “atrazine” and “paraquat.” Ciba and Geigy, two Swiss chemical companies that merged in the 1970s to become a predecessor of Syngenta and the pharmaceutical giant Novartis, helped turn Basel into a center of chemical engineering and manufacturing for much of the last century. Syngenta’s parent companies also have a corporate rap sheet a mile long.

After World War II, Geigy introduced the world to DDT, the now-infamous star of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring that was really good at killing mosquitos – and poisoning the rest of the environment at unprecedented levels. In 1976, documents from a Ciba-Geigy toxicology lab revealed that the company’s researchers paid six Egyptian children between the ages of 10 and 18 about $10 to stand in a field and be doused by its patented insecticide Galecron in an effort to satisfy a request from the Egyptian government for information on potential health effects. The children immediately became ill, and Egypt rejected the chemical because it would cost farmers too much to use it safely. Ciba-Geigy’s presence in the United States became notorious in the 1980s and early 1990s after its facilities contaminated sites in New Jersey and Alabama with hazardous chemicals, and a class-action lawsuit forced the company to spend $45 million on treatment and compensation for workers who handled Galecron in Louisiana.

In 1986, a chemical fire erupted at a chemical plant in Basel operated by Sandoz, a company that would later be absorbed by Ciba-Geigy. Water used to fight the fire became contaminated with toxic pesticides and other chemicals and ran into the Rhine River, obliterating fish populations in France and Germany for hundreds of miles downstream. A day earlier, a Ciba-Geigy facility in Basel had accidentally dumped 100 gallons of atrazine directly into the Rhine.

The Rhine River spills ignited angry protests in Basel and across the region, where newspapers and graffiti artists compared the spill to the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl that occurred earlier that year. Chemicals like paraquat, atrazine and Galecron are no longer used in Switzerland and neighboring countries. Ciba-Geigy, however, continued to sell Galecron to the United States and countries in Latin America for a decade after it was removed from the European market in 1976, just as its descendent Syngenta continues to sell atrazine and paraquat across the world today.

Old chemical and manufacturing buildings line the French banks of the Rhine River across from Basel, Switzerland. In 1986, a chemicals released during a fire and accidental spill in Basel contaminated the Rhine River, killing fish for hundreds of miles. (Photo: Mike Ludwig/Truthout) Old chemical and manufacturing buildings line the French banks of the Rhine River across from Basel, Switzerland. In 1986, a chemicals released during a fire and accidental spill in Basel contaminated the Rhine River, killing fish for hundreds of miles. (Photo: Mike Ludwig/Truthout)

Becoming GMO Ground Zero

Malia Chun opened her presentation in Basel with a traditional Hawaiian chant called an “oli,” an art form used to preserve oral histories and traditions for generations. She went on to explain that Hawai’i hasn’t always been ground zero for GMOs.

Chun said that her Polynesian ancestors settled on the Hawaiian islands some 1,300 years ago, where “they didn’t just survive, they thrived.” Native Hawaiians’ system of agriculture relied on sustainable techniques that were efficient enough to feed three times the island’s current population. Today, Chun said, an island like Kaua’i would run out of food within a few days if cargo ships stopped showing up at the port.

When Europeans arrived in Hawai’i in 1778, plantations – established by wealthy colonizers, settlers and missionaries on stolen land – began to forcibly replace the traditional agricultural system. Diseases introduced by foreigners drastically reduced the Native Hawaiian population, and immigrants from East Asia and across the Pacific were brought in to work the fields. By 1898, an insurgency fueled by US citizens had toppled Hawaii’s indigenous monarchy and the islands were annexed by the United States. Some indigenous activists still consider the US occupation of Hawai’i to be illegal.

As the biotech seed industry has grown, so have concerns over the potential impacts of the pesticides.

For years, Hawaii’s lush agricultural zones churned out pineapple and sugar cane for export instead of food to feed the island’s inhabitants. However, the plantations closed in recent decades, Chun said, leaving prime agricultural land barren, watersheds depleted and many Native Hawaiians out of jobs. That’s when Syngenta and the other agrichemical companies showed up. “They came in looking like the shining knights, you know, providing jobs for these displaced workers,” said Chun, who comes from a community where biotech agriculture is a major employer. “Nobody asked questions until people started getting sick.”

The production of hybrid and GMO corn and soy seeds for export has surpassed taro, sugar cane, pineapple and other tropical crops to become Hawaii’s top agricultural commodity. From 2006 to 2012, the value of Hawaii’s commercial biotech seed industry increased by 46 percent to about $146 million annually, according to the Hawai’i Crop Improvement Association, a group that represents the agrichemical companies. The Center for Food Safety points out that 91 percent of the GMO crops field-tested in Hawai’i are varieties of corn and soy, not niche crops like papaya and banana that one would expect to find growing on a tropical island.

As the biotech seed industry has grown, so have concerns over the potential impacts of the pesticides. Studies show that people working and living in agricultural areas where heavy pesticides are used suffer notably high rates of cancer and other health problems, with agricultural workers and children bearing the brunt of the impacts. In Chun’s community, children have been rushed from their classrooms near Syngenta’s fields to the hospital with symptoms of pesticide poisoning, only to have Syngenta blame the air pollution on a noxious weed. Doctors in Chun’s community say they have noticed upticks in birth defects and asthma cases, and researchers suspect that atrazine may be contributing to the decline of a coral reef off Kaua’i’s north coast. Yet without data on pesticide applications and GMO experiments, which the companies prefer to keep confidential, it’s difficult to prove any definite links.

“They keep telling us, ‘prove it, prove it,’ but they don’t tell us how to prove it without disclosure,” Hooser said.

Confronting Syngenta

The Syngenta shareholders conference in Basel fell on a cold and rainy spring morning, not the best weather for a protest. I asked Chun how she was feeling as MultiWatch activists set up a mock GMO test field in front of the conference building. “I’m feeling, I guess it’s a bit surreal,” Chun said. “We fought so hard and long and now we are here, in the belly of the beast. I’m really excited. Actually, we never dreamed we would have this opportunity. I know that knowledge will come to us.”

Swiss protesters gather outside a Syngenta shareholders conference in Basel. (Photo: Mike Ludwig/Truthout) Swiss protesters gather outside a Syngenta shareholders conference in Basel. (Photo: Mike Ludwig/Truthout)

Paul Barrett, Syngenta’s top public relations officer in Basel, stood outside the conference getting an earful from Fern Rosenstiel, the environmental consultant and bartender from Kaua’i who served as the third member of the delegation and helped spark the protest movement that inspired Ordinance 960. Barrett seemed slightly flustered as he pardoned himself and briskly walked away.

“We take very seriously our responsibility toward Kaua’i’s natural environment and the communities where we’re based,” Barrett told Truthout later in an email. “We operate within the laws and regulations of the US federal government and Hawai’i state authorities.”

Barrett said Syngenta always notifies nearby residents before spraying chemicals and only sprays near schools after hours, but Hooser said that doesn’t go far enough.

“They only notify some of the residents, and if someone is visiting the area, driving through the area or working in the area, they have no way to know that these pesticides are being applied,” said Hooser, who added that all schools are utilized after hours for community meetings and after-school programs, and pesticide residues can build up on school grounds regardless.

“Do not spray chemicals in my community that you cannot spray in your own community.”

Barrett said Syngenta participates in the Agricultural Good Neighbor Program, a voluntary program announced by the governor’s office in coordination with the agrichemical companies as Ordinance 960 was passed into law. The program establishes voluntary buffer zones between pesticide spray areas and facilities like schools and hospitals, but they are smaller than the buffer zones that would have been established by Ordinance 960. Syngenta and other participants also voluntarily provide data on restricted-use pesticide applications to a state database and notify neighboring property owners within 1,000 feet of a spray zone beforehand, but only to those neighbors who are registered with the program.

Hooser said the voluntary program is “woefully inadequate” compared to Ordinance 960, which would have required the companies to warn the public about sprays and disclose more detailed information on potential impacts, including data on the herbicide glyphosate, which doesn’t carry the restricted-use label.

Who is holding Syngenta to its word when it comes to its obligations under the voluntary program? State inspectors, Hooser said, show up to the company’s 4,000-acre facility about five times a year, and the nearest EPA office is in San Francisco.

Hooser called Syngenta’s commitment to the program “disingenuous” because the company only volunteered to observe buffer zones and disclose data after Ordinance 960 was passed into law. If Syngenta takes its responsibility to Kaua’i seriously, he said, the company wouldn’t spray chemicals that are illegal in its own country in the first place.

Having bought a share beforehand, Hooser and Rosenstiel went inside the shareholders meeting and signed up to speak in order to highlight this double standard. With a few minutes at the podium, Hooser asked the shareholders to imagine living in a community where toxic chemicals that are banned in Switzerland are sprayed in the fields around homes, hospitals and schools on a daily basis. Imagine, he said, living in a community where doctors at one rural hospital estimate that they are seeing birth defects at a rate 10 times the national average.

“So, I am asking you with great respect, withdraw the lawsuit from the County of Kaua’i, honor and comply with our laws, and treat us with the same respect, the same dignity, and the same protections that you give the people of Switzerland,” Hooser said. “Do not spray chemicals in my community that you cannot spray in your own community.”

(In an email to Truthout, Hooser later clarified that he expressed his own views at the conference and not the views of the Kaua’i County Council at large.)

Hooser’s speech brought a round of applause from the shareholders. Meanwhile, security guards escorted Rosenstiel out of the conference because she was recording the event with a video camera, which was apparently against the rules.

The fate of Ordinance 960 and the questions that still linger for parents like Chun are perfect examples of the impacts that global trade can have on a small community. If a controversial practice or chemical is banned in one country, multinationals like Syngenta can simply find another with looser laws and perhaps some people in need of work. If local governments try to hold them accountable, the corporations can use all their wealth and power to push back, arguing that they are already subject to the rules set by national governments.

Global trade also inspires global resistance. Activists in Switzerland are currently gathering signatures for a ballot initiative that would amend the Swiss constitution to require multinationals headquartered there to exercise “due diligence” in meeting international environmental and human rights standards, and give victims of human rights abuses the ability to seek damages in Swiss courts if they don’t. Across the globe, farmers and activists are exploring alternatives to industrial agriculture and challenging the idea that chemicals and GMOs are required to feed the world.

Before joining the movement on Kaua’i, Chun could not have imagined she would have to travel halfway around the world to fight for the children playing in her own backyard. She told me we cannot rely on governments to protect us from massive corporations that know no borders, and activists must stand up in local communities across the world while recognizing that the fight for justice is bigger than any individual issue. Activists from different parts of the world can learn from each other, and Hawaiians have important knowledge to share.

“We need to practice the ethic of aloha ʻāina – to have a profound love and respect for the land and all life that embodies it, to see ourselves as collective stewards of this earth,” Chun said.

Tired of reading the same old news from the same old sources?

So are we! That’s why we’re on a mission to shake things up and bring you the stories and perspectives that often go untold in mainstream media. But being a radically, unapologetically independent news site isn’t easy (or cheap), and we rely on reader support to keep the lights on.

If you like what you’re reading, please consider making a tax-deductible donation today. We’re not asking for a handout, we’re asking for an investment: Invest in a nonprofit news site that’s not afraid to ruffle a few feathers, not afraid to stand up for what’s right, and not afraid to tell it like it is.