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On the Front Lines of Hawaii’s GMO War

Hawaii has become a flashpoint for the debate and a center of anti-GMO activism.

Biotech agriculture facility and irrigation ditch near the beach on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. (Photo: Mike Ludwig)

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2013 1121-5Biotech agriculture facility and irrigation ditch near the beach on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. (Photo: Mike Ludwig)

(This is part one of an in-depth series on resistance to pesticides and GMO farming on The Garden Island.)

Malia Chun lives just blocks away from the beach on the western shores of the Hawaiian island of Kauai. On a sunny November morning, local activist Josh Mori drives Chun and me down the beach in his truck. Children are surfing and swimming in the waves as fisherman wait for a tug on their lines. Hawaiian beaches are known for their sparking blue waters, but Chun worries that the water lapping on the beach in her small town of Kekaha is polluted.

The nearby residential neighborhood is a “homestead” area that is reserved for people of native Hawaiian heritage and boasts one of the highest numbers of native speakers of any neighborhood in the state. Chun calls the homestead “a gem.” She runs a cultural enrichment program for native Hawaiian students at a local community college, and she moved with her two daughters, ages 7 and 11, to the homestead community six years ago. As we ride past the men and their fishing poles, Chun explains that some locals are subsistence fishermen and their families rely on what they catch. Chun says there are rumors among fisherman that the offshore reef, a crucial habitat for fish, is dying.

Mori stops the truck near two chain link fences separating the beach from sandy lots full of equipment and storage containers. Facilities operated by the international agrichemical firms Syngenta and DuPont-Pioneer run right up to the beach, where the stretch of sand occupied by the swimmers and fisherman is split by an irrigation ditch that stretches back toward the agricultural fields near Chun’s neighborhood. The biotech giants BASF and Dow also operate in the area, and Monsanto has facilities elsewhere in the state. On Kauai, the four companies take advantage of The Garden Island’s three growing seasons to develop and produce varieties of seeds that are bred or genetically engineered to resist pests and pesticides and increase yields.

Stands of genetically engineered corn are not what you would expect to see on a tropical island that once hosted sugar cane plantations and has kept its population happy for generations with coconuts, breadfruit, taro and papaya. But high demand on the mainland has made biotech corn and other seeds one of Hawaii’s top agricultural commodities. Hawaii is the world’s leading producer of corn seed, which accounts for 96 percent of the state’s $247 million biotech agriculture industry, according to the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, which represents biotech companies. Virtually every genetically engineered seed variety has spent some time in development on a Hawaiian island.

2013 1121-5aBiotech agriculture facility and irrigation ditch near the beach on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. (Photo: Mike Ludwig)

The transgenic seed varieties, also known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are at the heart of a global controversy over the future of agriculture. Hawaii has become a flashpoint for the debate and a center of anti-GMO activism. In September, thousands of people marched in Lihue, the county seat of Kauai, to protest GMO agriculture and support a local initiative to regulate pesticide use. On November 19, the Hawaii County Council passed a controversial bill banning new GMO operations on Hawaii’s big island. All new GMO crop varieties except papaya, which was genetically engineered to resist a virus in the 1990s, would be illegal under the ban if the island’s mayor gives it his approval.

But in communities on the west side of Kauai, the most immediate controversy is not over genetic engineering, but the considerable amount of chemicals sprayed on the GMO development plots. The GMO seeds produced on Kauai are not considered food items, so the agrichemical companies are allowed to use more pesticides than traditional farmers. Together, the four biotech and agrichemical companies use an estimated 18 tons of “restricted use” pesticides on their plots each year, and local doctors and activists worry about the chemicals drifting in the air and water. Some of the 22 restricted-use pesticides in use on Kauai, such as atrazine, are linked to serious health problems and are banned in European countries, and federal law requires that they be applied by or under supervision of workers with special training. Sometimes the pesticides are combined, or “stacked,” with general-use pesticides in cocktails that have never been tested officially for safety.

A seed test plot is visible from Chun’s home in the homestead neighborhood. The only thing separating the plot from her neighbors’ backyard is some bare land and a drainage ditch. “There is no testing,” says Mori, looking out toward the biotech seed plot. “We are the lab rats.”

As Chun began to learn about the GMO development in her neighborhood’s backyard, she decided to organize potlucks to bring local mothers together to share knowledge about GMO farming, pesticides and alternatives like organic farming and produce. Few, if any, other mothers showed up. On other parts of the island, anti-GMO bumper stickers and lawn signs are common sights, but not in Chun’s neighborhood. The agrichemical companies are major employers in the working-class communities on the west side of Kauai, where there are few signs of the tourist industry that supports other areas of the island. Chun says there is still a “plantation mentality” left from the days before the island’s wealthy landowners signed their sugar cane fields over to the biotech companies. Many folks in the area work for the biotech companies or are close with people who do, so Chun says it’s difficult to speak up about pesticide concerns.

“It’s offensive to our own intellect … that they can silence us,” Mori adds. Mori has founded two nonprofits focused on indigenous culture and has a degree in native American studies from the University of Montana, and he sees the chemical-laden GMO farming on Kauai as another chapter in an American legacy of big business exploiting indigenous workers and their sacred lands.

A few miles down the road, the town of Waimea has become known locally as “ground zero” for suspected pesticide exposure and a debate that has threatened to create deep divisions on an island where aloha means much more than hello and goodbye. Lands used by the biotech companies run right up against neighborhoods, schools and the Waimea River. On two occasions, in 2006 and 2008, teachers at a local middle school said noxious odors caused chaos on campus as children became sick and some had to be taken home or to the hospital. Many of the teachers at the school blamed pesticides sprayed by Syngenta, but the company claimed the strange odors and symptoms were caused by an outbreak of stinkweed, a plant that grows in the area.

In 2013, investigators released a report showing that five pesticides, along with about half the chemicals associated with stinkweed, were detected in air samples inside and outside of Waimea Canyon Middle School from 2010 to 2012. The five pesticides – which included chlorpyrifos, metolachlor and bifenthrin – were well below acceptable federal safety levels, but community advocates argued that any level of pesticides floating near schoolchildren is unacceptable and possibly illegal. State records show that the four biotech companies had purchased chlorpyrifos, commonly known as Lorsban, in recent years.

The west side of Kauai is dryer than the lush areas that attract tourists, and the soil is dusty and red. The bridges and buildings along the highway to Waimea look like they are rusting away, but they are actually coated with red dust. Years of sugar cane plantation farming, and now experimental GMO seed development, has removed much of the groundcover, allowing the prevailing winds to pick up and dump red dust onto the neighborhoods of Waimea. In their public testimony, residents say they regularly clean the dust from the sides of their houses and even from their bed sheets. They fear that the dust is laden with the restricted-use pesticides that are applied heavily on the GMO seed development plots, as well as toxic leftovers from the plantation days, when heavier chemicals were still in use.

In 2000, Waimea residents petitioned DuPont-Pioneer to control the dust and give the community some relief, but the problem persisted. In 2011, more than 150 Waimea residents filed a lawsuit alleging that the company failed to keep pesticides from migrating from the GMO fields and had unlawfully allowed pesticide-laden fugitive dust to blow on their homes on a daily basis for the past decade, raising health concerns and diminishing property values.

Chun says she has “so many” friends on the west side with children who were born with birth defects, and local doctors and nurses have reported what they say is a spike in rare birth defects in the area. The doctors and nurses fear that a cluster of birth defects is emerging in the community, but they admit in public testimony that more research is needed. Biotech supporters have dismissed the claims as merely anecdotal. “Because there is no disclosure, everything we say is not based on fact,” Chun says.

Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement on children and pesticide exposure, citing scientific evidence linking early life exposure to pesticides to preterm birth, neurological defects, low birth weight, asthma and cancer. Representatives for the biotech companies have said repeatedly that pesticide applicators follow federal and manufacturer guidelines to prevent exposure to the public and use the chemicals only when necessary. But activists and parents such as Chun want more information.

Activists and local doctors want research to be done on pesticide exposure and potential health impacts on west-side residents, and parents such as Chun want to be able to protect their children. But little is known about how much of each pesticide is used and where and when the chemicals are applied, making it difficult to identify any potential links between the chemicals and health problems. The Hawaii Department of Agriculture told Truthout that it requires the companies to keep logs of restricted-use pesticide applications for two years, but those are not handed over to the state unless an inspector makes a request. The biotech companies compete with each other in the global GMO seed and agrichemical markets, so they prefer to keep the details of their operations under wraps.

That’s why Chun and Mori have rallied around the Kauai County Council’s Bill 2491. The bill requires the major biotech companies to disclose the details of their pesticide applications publicly, create buffer zones around school and health clinics and comply with an environmental impact analysis of pesticide use in the area. Earlier versions of the bill included a moratorium on pesticide use and restrictions on GMO farming, but those provisions were dropped after lengthy public debate. Groups of doctors, nurses and first responders signed petitions supporting the bill, saying the disclosure will make it easier to advise patients and respond to any potential accidents.

In the past months, the drama around Bill 2491 created thick tension on an otherwise tight-nit island of 67,000 residents. The biotech companies fought the bill tooth and nail, rallying their workers in protest and framing the bill as an attack on Kauai farmers and their jobs. Both sides rallied at county council meetings where activists and industry supporters waited their turn to testify in marathon public comment periods. Opponents of the bill wore blue shirts, and supporters wore red, creating a distinct image of an island divided.

“They see [Bill 2491] as a threat to the things they already have,” Mori says of the bill’s opponents. “They don’t have much, but they do have these jobs.”

The County Council passed the bill by a 6-1 vote in October even as the biotech firms threatened the county with expensive lawsuits. Kauai County Mayor Bernard P. Carvalho, Jr. said he agreed with the spirit of the bill but said it was legally flawed and vetoed it.

The County Council was scheduled to vote on an override of the mayor’s veto the day after I met with Chun and Mori. Chun didn’t know it yet, but with a hefty dose of political theater and maneuvering by the bill’s supporters on the council, the mayor’s veto would be defeated despite a dissenting vote that threatened the supermajority needed to override.

But nothing was certain on that Wednesday morning as Chun showed me the new organic garden in her backyard, one of several installed at neighborhood homes by a loose group of community activists. She describes their efforts to raise awareness and support for their campaign to hold the biotech companies accountable, like a recent cultural event that celebrated the Waimea River. As more people get together to share their concerns, she says, they discover they are not alone and feel more comfortable speaking out. “I’m stoked; I feel the energy,” Chun tells me. She’s juggling duties as a single mother, an educator and a community activist up against some of the most powerful companies in the world, but her resolve is not shaken. More members of her community recently have volunteered to testify at the council meeting, and Chun says they come from “whole streets where kids have birth defects.” The movement, she says, is born of the desire to make the west side a better place for their kids. “Whatever happens tomorrow,” Chun says, “it’s not going to dampen our spirit moving forward and our effort to educate the community.”

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