Marghee Maupin, a primary care provider at the Kauai Community Health Center in Waimea who treats both fieldworkers and local residents, says she’s never seen so many patients come in with rashes, skin blisters, and respiratory ailments. “I hear of children waking up in the morning with blood on the pillow, I see people with asthma flare-ups on whom standard treatments [like steroids, heavy-duty drugs] don’t work,” she says. Maupin often comes home in tears, distressed that she doesn’t know how to help her patients. “A big problem is we don’t know what they are spraying, so it’s hard draw any conclusions.”
After more than a decade of putting up with the dust and the health problems, in December 2011, 130 Waimea households, including Kubo’s and Kabutan’s, filed a lawsuit against Pioneer. The suit alleged that the company had failed to prevent fugitive dust and pesticides from blowing into Waimea and was thus endangering the community’s health and area property values. The case is currently in litigation.
Gradually, other west-siders – especially parents, doctors, nurses, and teachers – began speaking out against the seed industry, risking the ire of their industry-employed neighbors. As word of the west side’s tribulations began spreading across the island to the more affluent north and south sides – areas with organic farms, a growing local food economy, and a deep distrust of industrial agriculture – people began to mobilize. Students, pro-surfers, and others joined with west-siders and veteran social-justice and environmental activists. They reached out to a local councilmember, Gary Hooser.
During an eight-year stint as a state senator, Hooser had introduced several bills seeking more regulation of GM field trials in Hawaii. Now, as a councilman, he began quizzing the seed companies about their pesticide use. They told him they were “only using what other farmers [were] using.” They said they weren’t using atrazine anymore. But they wouldn’t give him a full list of the chemicals they were spraying. Hooser filed freedom of information requests with the state and found out the companies were lying. Records revealed that apart from general-use pesticides, the biotech companies were annually spraying at least 18 tons of 22 kinds of “Restricted Use Pesticides” – chemicals so toxic that they require special-use permits from the US EPA and need to be applied by licensed applicators wearing protective gear. He also learned that the biotech companies were applying pesticides on their fields nearly 250 days of the year.
“The more they lied to me, the more angry I got and the less I trusted them,” Hooser said when I met him at a café in Kapaa on Kauai’s east side.
In June 2013, Hooser and a fellow councilmember, Tim Bynum, introduced Bill 2491. It called for punitive measures against companies that refused to disclose their pesticide use or failed to set up buffer zones around fields located near homes and public spaces. It also required that the county investigate the impact of pesticide exposure on local residents and the environment.
The bill gave a tremendous boost to Hawaii’s food justice movement, which had earlier fought off efforts to genetically modify coffee and taro, a starchy root that is sacred to Hawaiians. “We went from a handful of people holding signs at the side of the road to literally thousands marching down the streets,” says Fern Rosenstiel, co-founder of ‘Ohana O Kaua’i, a local environmental and community rights group.
The biotech companies fought back, vilifying 2491 as an attack against the “hardworking farmers of Kauai.” They got politicians to weigh in on their behalf, put out expensive ads, and sent workers to testify against the bill at county council meetings. The meetings turned into marathon face-offs between red-shirted bill proponents and blue-shirted opponents, inspiring many media references to “an island divided.”
Bill 2491 was finally passed on November 18, after the council overrode a veto by Kauai Mayor Barnard Carvalho. Many local activists were thrilled by the outcome. “It’s a good time for grassroots democracy, ” Hooser told me during our Kapaa meeting. “People are getting akamai [wise]; they are understanding what’s going on. It’s becoming harder for politicians and corporations to pull wool over their eyes.”
Kabutan and Kubo are more cautious in their optimism. “Remember, [the companies] have billions of dollars, billions of dollars! It won’t cost them much to make a few troublemakers disappear,” Kubo warned darkly.
The seed companies don’t need to employ such sinister methods. They have massive legal teams that can operate in the bright light of day. One month after my meeting with Kabutan and Kubo, the biotech industry fired its first retaliatory salvo. On January 11, Pioneer-DuPont, Syngenta, and Dow filed a lawsuit in a federal court seeking to block Kauai’s new law. Their complaint: Bill 2491 was explicitly drafted “to discriminate against GM seed farming operations on Kauai.” Soon after, state politicians joined in the fray. On January 23, a group of Hawaii legislators introduced bills in the House and Senate seeking to amend Hawaii’s Right to Farm Act to include language that would make it illegal for counties to pass laws that limit the rights of farmers “to engage in modern farming and ranching practices.”
Like the larger, international battle over GM crops, the political fight in the Hawaiian Islands can be distilled down to a debate over whether “modern farming and ranching” – that is, highly concentrated and industrialized farming – is a social good. While GM supporters say biotechnology is essential for feeding a growing human population, critics counter that such technologies are dangerous since they reduce biodiversity and often lead to more chemical use.
Clearly, not everyone in Hawaii views the seed companies as the bad guys. Kauai’s Mayor Carvalho, who “grew up around plantations,” told me: “This is Hawaii; it’s different from Iowa or Nebraska. It’s always been large ag here.… People might not understand, but this kind of agriculture really feeds our families.” When I pointed out that none of the seed companies in Hawaii are actually growing food for local consumption, he laughed: “You are not feeding yourself, but you are feeding other parts of the world that need help, too. Let’s spread our aloha!”
That’s the standard argument from the GM industry (minus the aloha part), says Glenn Davis Stone, a professor of anthropology and environmental studies at Washington University. “The claim that we need GM crops to feed the world is silly, but we keep hearing it over and over again. We certainly make enough food in the world; we make too much food, and we make it badly,” he says. The reason people still go hungry across the world has little to do with production, he says, and a lot to do with what World Health Organization calls “maldistribution and inequality.”
Stone says the “feed the world” argument is part of the “deceptive rhetoric” and “soundbite science” that people on both sides of the GMO debate tend to use. He faults both the anti- and pro-biotech lobbies with lumping all GMOs together – portraying them as either a monolithic threat to our environment, health, and food systems, or as a panacea for current and future food shortages and crop blights.
Most of the pro lobby obscures the differences between corporate and publicly funded crop biotechnology in order to create a more positive image of GMOs. The industry hails experimental crops like the much-hyped vitamin-A enriched Golden Rice. In Hawaii particularly, the industry advertises the success of the ringspot-resistant papaya, engineered to resist a virus that once threatened to wipe out the fruit from the islands plantations (although the virus is less of a problem for many small growers). But the papaya was developed by government scientists, not by biotech corporations, which have largely focused on commodity crops like corn, soy, and cotton, where the profit margin is higher.
The green lobby, too, obscures differences between corporate and public sector efforts by painting all GMOs as bad and not evaluating different transgenic products on a case-by-case basis, Stone says. Maybe that’s because it’s easier to mobilize people around one big monolithic idea than an idea that makes room for nuances.
Stone may have a point, agrees Bill Freese at the Center for Food Safety, one of the leading critics of GMOs. “At CFS we do take that nuanced approach and look at GMOs on a case-by-case basis,” he says. “But we focus on crops that are being grown commercially or are being considered for approval.” Freese points out that the vast majority of the GM crops currently in use have been engineered for just a couple of traits: They are resistant to herbicides, mostly to glyphosate, the active ingredient of Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer; or they are resistant to pests, i.e., they contain the Bt gene that fights off marauding insects and worms. Transgenic crops that don’t have either of these two traits make up less than 1 percent of the estimated 420 million acres worldwide that are planted with GM crops.
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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