GMO critics warn that weeds are naturally evolving to withstand the chemicals meant to kill them. Last year, 49 percent of all US farmers said they had weeds on their farms that were resistant to glyphosate, up from 34 percent in 2011. (Meanwhile, at least one pest, the western corn rootworm, has begun to show resistance to Bt corn.) To deal with the evolved weeds, farmers are not only using more Roundup, they’ve also started relying on older, more toxic herbicides like 2,4 D, an active ingredient of Agent Orange, the Vietnam War-era defoliant that’s linked to reproductive problems and cancer. Research by University of Washington agricultural scientist Charles Benbrook shows that herbicide-resistant crops have actually increased overall pesticide use by about 7 percent since GM crops were first introduced in 1996.
In Hawaii, where the end product of the GM fields is seed, pesticide use is already very high, Freese says. Since most of the GMO fields are in close proximity to neighborhoods and public places, the risk of exposure is high. “We are talking about toxic chemicals like atrazine and chlorophenoxies that have clearly been linked to development problems in kids, and paraquat, which is extremely toxic when inhaled and is linked to Parkinson’s disease and cancer,” Freese says.
Benbrook agrees that’s “a significant” chemical load. “The assumption here seems to be that if applying one dose of atrazine is OK, then so is three.” Environments have a certain ability to assimilate and process synthetic chemicals, but they have a breaking point. Hawaiians have “legitimate concerns” about what might be happening to the environment and to people living in the vicinity of the farms, he says.
The pushback against the GMO industry in Hawaii is certainly part of the larger global movement against industrialized food systems in general and transgenic crops in particular. But as with every local struggle, it has aspects that are unique to its mise-en-scène.
For many Hawaiians, the GM seed industry’s growing presence and political clout represent the beginnings of a new form of colonialism – one where corporations have replaced the sugar barons who ran the state for more than a century. For them, the fight against GMOs isn’t just about agricultural practices and what kind of food we put on the table, it’s also part of a larger struggle to reclaim the islands’ political sovereignty. “To me the real underlying story in all of this is Hawaii is a occupied nation and it’s been used as an experimental station all along,” says Rosenstiel of ‘Ohana O Kaua’i. “They test sonar, they test missiles, they sprayed Agent Orange here before using it in Vietnam, and now they are growing seeds for the largest human experiment ever.”
The struggle is also linked to other knotty issues such as consolidated land ownership and deeply entrenched power structures, and two centuries of alienation from a traditional, diversified agricultural system that had once sustained a robust Indigenous population in the islands. (Exhibit A, Carvalho’s comment: “It’s always been large ag here.”)
The five large seed companies, activists say, are all too reminiscent of the “Big Five” sugarcane companies – Alexander & Baldwin, Theo H Davies, Castle & Cooke, Amfac, and C Brewer – that once ran the islands like fiefdoms and lobbied for the US annexation of Hawaii. “It’s déjà vu, that’s the scary part,” says Walter Ritte, a veteran Hawaiian political and environmental activist from Molokai. “We haven’t learned any lessons.”
The new “Big Five” quickly established themselves in the political scene still dominated by old haole(white) and Hawaiian family lines that have a stake in maintaining the status quo. The companies have wooed the influential, hired lobbyists, and put cash in politicians’ campaign coffers. From 2007 to January 2014, the biotech industry has spent at least $515,775 on campaign contributions in Hawaiian legislative, gubernatorial, and county council elections, according to an analysis by the Honolulu-based watchdog group, Babes Against Biotech.
Land ownership is another vexed issue. Hawaii is among the few US states that have more rented or leased farmland than farmer-owned properties (Illinois and Iowa are two other examples). Much of the state’s 280,000 acres of arable agricultural land belongs to trusts set up by erstwhile plantation barons and an educational trust called Kamehameha Schools, which was established by the last direct descendant of Hawaii’s last king, Kamehameha I. The trust owns about 365,000 acres across Hawaii.
These landowners prefer to strike deals with Big Ag outfits that can rent or buy huge land parcels in one go. Monsanto, for instance, bought 2,300 acres of prime agricultural land in Oahu from the James Campbell Estate in 2007 and has leased another 1,033 acres from Kamehameha Schools. In Kauai, Dow has a 50-year lease of 3,400 acres belonging to the Robinson family, one of the islands’ biggest landowners.
Scott Enright, the chair of the Hawaii Board of Agriculture, says leasing land to smaller farmers is a risk because most of them are first-timers who lack institutional knowledge. “The state or the private landholders can’t just lease land to anybody who steps off the street and says ‘we want to farm,’” he says. “As with any business enterprise, we need to know that we are backing a good project.… You have to have a degree of success assured.”
Which means small farmers like Ted Nakamura, who runs a three-acre organic farm on Oahu’s north shore, get the short end of the stick. Nakamura’s lease from Kamehameha Schools is renewed on a month-to-month basis. “When these politicians say they are for sustainability and then they rent out land to chemical companies, it’s a joke,” Nakamura says bitterly. “I want to make more farms, I want to show its possible to grow food and live off a farm, but I’m 62 and I’m getting disheartened.”
Hector Valenzuela, a crop scientist at the University of Hawaii, says the state needs to start accepting the value of small, diversified farms. “Right now small farms like Ted’s are not even on the radar of the government and large landowners. They are not even ready to see them as real farms. That has to change.” Valenzuela points to a growing body of international research, including a 2013 report by the UN, that shows how small farms and agroecologcial practices can not only feed the world, but also help promote biodiversity and reduce poverty.
Valenzuela also notes that none of the crops produced by the biotech fields goes to feed Hawaiians. The seeds are shipped off to the mainland US and South America. Meanwhile, the state imports nearly 90 percent of its food.
There’s no disputing that growing food locally is key to food security in Hawaii, which is the most remote island chain in the world. Estimates show that, in case of a disruption in shipping, the state’s inventory of fresh produce would feed people for no more than 10 days. Local food production would also bring economic gains. A Hawaii University study estimates that replacing just 10 percent of imported food with locally grown food would create about 2,300 jobs, more than what the seed industry provides now.
Many local food activists believe Hawaii’s path back to food sovereignty lies in rediscovering its traditional concept of “Aloha ‘Aina” (“love for the land”) and in relearning and building upon Indigenous natural resource management practices such as the ahpua‘a system, which shared resources by dividing the islands into self-sustaining land sections that ran from the mountains to the sea. “Over here we have year-round warm weather, we have land, we have water.… We just need more farms that produce food,” says Chris Kobayashi, an organic taro farmer in Hanalei, on Kauai’s north side.
It’s not clear if Kauai’s Bill 2491 will make it through all the legal and political challenges it faces, or which side of the GMO debate will prevail in years to come. But in Hawaii, as I write this, there’s definitely a sense of optimism that a new, sustainable way of life is within reach. As Kobayashi says: “It’s going to a big fight, a very big fight, but I’m actually very excited about the possibilities of what can be done.”
Maureen Nandini Mitra is managing editor of Earth Island Journal. This story was funded by a grant from The Media Consortium.
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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