This post was written by Maureen Nandini Mitra and originally appeared in Earth Island Journal.
There is a whiff of bubblegum scent in the air as I drive toward Waimea Town and past the sprawling, fields of red earth operated by the agri-biotech companies flanking Kauai’s Highway 50. Just before reaching the bridge over Waimea River, which separates the fields from the town, I hang a left and pull into a gravel parking lot. There are only two other vehicles there. Wendell Kabutan and Klayton Kubo are waiting by them. They live in Waimea, on the street closest to the biotech fields, but they didn’t want to meet in public. It has been less than a month since the Kauai County Council passed a measure requiring large agricultural companies to disclose their pesticide use and genetically modified crop locations on Hawaii’s Garden Island. The legislation has been bitterly divisive in Waimea’s hardscrabble but tight-knit community, where many residents work in the company fields. Emotions are still raw and locals are wary of meeting with journalists.
Kubo, a housepainter and single parent in his late forties, has just gotten off work and is still in his paint-splattered shorts, t-shirt, and sunglasses. He points to the field behind us where a few tractors are going to and fro, raising little clouds of dust. “This one is Pioneer’s,” he says. “This week would make it six weeks straight that they’ve been spraying. It’s been 13 years and they are still doing it.” He lets out a sharp, frustrated breath. “Nothing has changed.”
Kabutan, a silver-haired retired Hawaiian Airlines ground-crew worker, says he has been having trouble breathing since the biotech companies started spraying heavy doses of pesticides. Previously the chemicals used to smell acrid, he says. “The first time I smelled it I thought my neighbor’s house was burning down. Now they use a bubblegum scent to cover it up.” Kabutan’s respiratory issues have landed him in the emergency room several times, though the doctors could never figure out what the problem was. Now he runs an air filter in his bedroom to help him sleep. “I nearly died once,” he says. “Had to spend three days in the ICU. But I’ve stopped taking medicines because nothing’s working, not when you are breathing the stuff every day.” In 2011, his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to undergo surgery. “I know it’s linked to atrazine,” he says, referring to a pesticide that is a known endocrine disruptor.
Kabutan starts listing the litany of ailments plaguing other Waimea residents: “My neighbor across from my house has leukemia. Two houses down the road the husband had to go to the emergency room three times because he couldn’t breathe and his three children all have asthma. There are seven confirmed cancer cases just on our side of the road. If you add the other side of the road, the one that goes toward the ocean, it would be nine cases. Almost all the kids have respiratory problems or nose bleeds or rashes.” He pauses and shakes his head. “We are all screwed.”
It was health worries such as these that sparked Kauai’s grassroots backlash against large-scale biotech agriculture on the island. In November, after months of political wrangling and several dramatic plot twists, the Kauai County Council passed Bill 2491. Then, on December 6, the Big Island passed a bill restricting biotech companies and farmers from growing any new genetically modified crops there. That same day, a GMO regulatory bill similar to Kauai’s 2491 was introduced on Maui Island. The local measures in Hawaii marked a major victory for sustainable agriculture advocates opposed to genetically engineered foods, especially coming after setbacks in California and Washington, where voters defeated GMO-labeling ballot initiatives. Suddenly, the state of Hawaii, and Kauai especially, has become the most heated battleground in the long-running war over GM agriculture.
“The thing with the Kauai bill is that it exposes the link between GMOs and pesticides,” says Bill Freese of the Center for Food Safety. The Kauai measure is important, Freese says, because it skips the question of whether GMOs are safe for human consumption and instead focuses on the issue of public health in farming communities. “It’s indisputable that the GMOs that are being grown commercially have sharply increased pesticide use, despite industry claims.”
Most mainlanders probably don’t think of Hawaii as a center of industrial agriculture. But in just the last decade the state has become a crucial testing ground for the global seed industry. The five big biotech companies that dominate seed production – Monsanto, Dow, Pioneer-DuPont, BASF, and Syngenta – each have massive operations in the state that together occupy tens of thousands of acres of former sugar and pineapple plantations. The companies have found that the islands’ subtropical climate is the perfect environment to grow and test transgenic seeds, largely corn, but also some soy, canola, and rice varieties. Hawaii has the largest number of experimental GM crops in the United States, with more field tests than any other state. Biotech seed farms comprise the state’s largest agricultural sector, valued at about $240 million and employing some 1,400 people. The seed industry proudly claims that almost every ear of GM corn in the global market today has spent some part of its life cycle in the Aloha State.
In Kauai, four of the Big Five biotech companies manage about 15,000 acres of land. (Monsanto used to have a small operation there, but it packed up in 2010.) Much of this activity is on the island’s west side, where the weather is sunnier and drier than the more rain-prone north and east sides.
The people of Waimea hadn’t gone looking for a fight with Big Biotech. Quite the opposite. The closures of the pineapple and sugarcane plantations through the 1990s left behind hundreds of jobless agricultural workers in Kauai. So when the seed companies arrived in the late 1990s, most people were happy. There were jobs to be had again. The companies were hiring just about anybody, sometimes entire families, including grandparents who could sit in the fields with umbrellas – human scarecrows to chase away birds and feral chickens. Most of the west-siders had either worked or grown up in the shadow of the plantations. The seed companies offered the comfort of the familiar.
Until the dust kicked up.
When the fields around Waimea were growing sugarcane, they were harvested once a year. But Hawaii’s warm climate allows for three to four corn or soy harvests in a year – which is what drew the big biotech companies to the islands in the first place. The multiple harvests meant that the fields were now tilled much more frequently, and treated with fertilizers and a cocktail of pesticides more often as well. Repeated tilling created a lot of loose, chemical-laden soil that swept into Waimea. The red dust landed on the streets and on the cars, snuck into houses and coated everything – windows, floors, and appliances, even dishes in the cupboards.
Kubo, whose home is downwind from Pioneer’s fields, complained to the company. “I’m a broken record kind of guy. I just repeat, repeat, repeat until I get the point across,” he says. But Pioneer didn’t get the point. As the years went by, anecdotal evidence of health problems – asthma, allergies, cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities – many of which could be linked to pesticide exposure, began piling up. On at least three occasions, students and teachers at Waimea Canyon Middle School, which is near a Syngenta field, complained of noxious odors that made them sick. In one instance the school had to be evacuated and some children were sent to the emergency room. Syngenta claims the odor was from stinkweed from a field they were clearing; few locals buy that explanation.
(I contacted BASF, Dow, Pioneer, and Syngenta for this story, and was referred to the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association. The association did not respond to calls and detailed questions sent via email. Dow officials gave me an antiseptic tour of their fields and kindly offered to organize a trip on a whale-watching cruise, which I turned down.)
Photo: In the last decade Hawaii has become a crucial testing and breeding ground for GM crops, especially corn. Credit: Ian Umeda
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