Trouble in Paradise

Hawaiians Push Back Against Big Ag

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.”

image of a flower

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.

photo of a monocultured field in a Hawaiian valley
In the last decade Hawaii has become a crucial testing and breeding ground for GM crops, especially corn. Photo by Ian Umeda.

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.)

image of a tilled field, rust-colored dust flowing out behind a tractor; tropical mountains and clouds in the background
Residents in Kauai blame a rash of medical problems on dust from the biotech fields. Photo by Samuel Morgan Shaw.

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.

photo of a person working in a taro patch
photo of a man standing before a palm tree-lined beach
Chris Kobayashi, top, is an organic farmer opposed to GM crops.
Councilman Gary Hooser sponsored Kauai’s GM bill. Photos by Ian Umeda.

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.

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.

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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 editor of Earth Island Journal. This story was funded by a grant from The Media Consortium.

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