Two and a half years ago, my friends and I released a film informing the public of Kamehameha Schools/ Bishop Estate (KS) undisclosed land leases to Monsanto for Genetic Engineering (GE) field trials and cultivation of GE seed crops. 9 days after the release of our film, KS altered their website from a sophisticated, greenwashing, “cultural co-optation” propaganda machine to highlight an admittance that they were indeed leasing acreage to Monsanto, and that Monsanto was a “good tenant who paid their bills”. Obviously their messaging was reflective of a limited understanding and the general zeitgeist of that time: basically, “what’s the big deal?”.
It turns out, the “big deal” is that- unbeknownst at that time to not only the world, but the people of Hawai’i- Hawai’i is the top GE seed producer and exporter on Earth.
In the 1960s, small research firms that had been experimenting with plant hybridization (an ancient practice responsible for much of the food we eat today) began quietly being bought up by American war chemical companies that were rebranding into “Life Sciences” firms. These larger firms- now widely known as biotech firms- realized the value of Hawai’i as a research facility: akin to an outdoor, yet “controlled” laboratory, with a temperate climate offering multiple growing seasons, and isolated due to its location in the middle of the Pacific ocean. Thus began a half century of “quiet” agricultural research. As technology advanced, research shifted from seed hybridization to the field testing of transgenic crops. The difference between a hybridized seed and a genetically engineered seed can be stated simply: the former requires the permission of the plant. Meaning, hybridization can occur in nature, while transgenics can only occur in a “lab”, utilizing technology that allows non-related species to copulate. A common transgenic procedure involves a gene gun, an antibiotic marker, a virus and some sort of soil bacterium. Which all sounds innocuous in the bigger picture, until one realizes the potential consequences of releasing such genetically engineered plants into nature: no one knows. Scientists have witnessed and even re-demonstrated the unintended cross pollination of transgenic crops with other crops in nature, even across species barriers (think endemic, native plants..). Changes that might otherwise take millions of years happen over the course of months. Unpredicted changes to RNA, proteins, and unintended mutations can occur generations after the initial transgenic event. In other words, genetic engineering is a practice still in its infancy in terms of our understanding of its implications. So much for the precautionary principle- the Earth is the lab now, and Hawai’i is the test tube.
To add to the liability of unconfined field testing of GE crops, many of the GE crops have been engineered to resist higher doses of herbicide sprays. I recall a conversation with a friend who in the 1980s did landscaping. He was adamant that no one in their right mind would ever spray RoundUp near food- that it was purely a weed killer, and everyone new that. When I pulled up Monsanto’s docket on RoundUp Ready Soybeans, he was speechless and infuriated. Even he knew how toxic RoundUp is to humans. Now, when farmers purchase RoundUp Ready Soybeans (which account for over 90% of soybeans grown in America), they contract with Monsanto to exclusively use RoundUp herbicide on their soybean crops. And as weeds evolve to thrive in such high glyphosate environments, companies like Monsanto, Dow and Syngenta are lobbying the USDA and FDA to approve even stronger herbicides (2, 4-d, an active component in the infamous Vietnam war weapon Agent Orange, was approved to come back on the market a month ago by the EPA and USDA. How’d you like that being sprayed near your home?). It is a cycle that is toxic to the land, toxic to farmers and toxic to those who live near farms who grow these crops, as well as those who consume the livestock and processed foods that contain them.
In Hawai’i, specifically:
-Tens of thousands of acres of once fertile soil in this fragile island paradise are being pummeled with industrial chemical herbicide combinations hundreds of days a year. No testing is required for the combined applications of new and variant chemical compounds, which aggregate together in the environment, seeping into the soil and eventually, our precious aquifers.
-Hundreds of thousands of gallons of fresh water a day are being guzzled up by so-called “drought-resistant” crops that not only are NOT grown for local food- that’s right, NONE of the GE crops are grown to feed the people of Hawai’i- but are either A) destroyed as byproducts of scientific experimentation, B) shipped off to the US mainland for processing as the patented seed property of a few multinational chemical firms to be sold to farmers worldwide under contracts obligating them to utilize loads of (also patented) industrial chemical inputs like herbicides, pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers, which eventually produce commodity crops laden with chemical residue that, more often than not, end up as C) disease-causing feed for livestock animals on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) (cattle evolved to eat grass, not corn or soy) and/ or fuel for the biofuel subsidy scam, both contributing to, rather than mitigating, climate imbalance.
-Much of the land currently controlled by these collective biotech companies lay fallow- but instead of restoring the fertility of the land, they regularly bombard it with weed killers, even in the absence of crops, resulting in further soil degradation and ultimately, desertification of once fertile land (see dust storms on Moloka’i).
These biotech ag plots are essentially outdoor laboratories, and the chemical and genetic drift is present and totally uncontrolled. These companies are at war with the land and utilizing the climate, water and lack of regulation to their private benefit and profit, with no obligation to make reparations for the depletion of the soil, the chemical residue and drift, the pollution of waterways, the runoff into reefs, nor the impacts to the health and quality of life of those families who reside in the vicinities of their operations. Up until now, Hawai’i has served as a “Wild West” in the truest sense for the biotech firms, taking what they want and at best buying off local communities through bribes and donations.
But this dangerous and unsustainable legacy of toxic industrial agricultural practices stretches back into history, long before the (formerly war) chemical firms- DOW, BASF, SYNGENTA, MYCOGEN, MONSANTO and PIONEER quietly bought up the pre-existing seed hybridization operations on Moloka’i and other islands and evolved their businesses into the GE outdoor labs of today. It began with the pineapple and sugarcane export industries around the early to mid 1800s. It continued as Brewer Chemical- formerly Pacific Guano and Fertilizer, began to import and concoct chemical fertilizers for agricultural use, and then expanded with the widespread distribution of herbicides and pesticides, actively applied throughout Hawai’i for the past few generations by large professional farms as well as individual home gardeners and yard keepers. The widespread, default acceptance of industrial lawn and gardening chemicals as “safe” for consumption, for spraying on our lawns, vegetable and flower gardens, in our parks, on golf courses, and around our businesses and homes, where the keiki play- this old, outdated and severely misinformed attitude has caused Hawai’i to devolve from a once pristine environment to a place that forewarns residents to beware of toxic herbicide levels in their water (see “Kunia polluted water” as a prime example). Society, ever so distracted with media, forgets quickly (i.e.: recall the rarely-discussed heptachlor contamination of the early 80s) And the corporations responsible bank on that.
So, once we recognize there is a major imbalance in the way these businesses farm and manage land in Hawai’i, what can be done?
In order to answer that question, let’s first look at what WAS done.
Historians inform us that prior to the arrival of Captain Cook, Hawaiian farmers, hunters, gatherers and fishermen were sustaining a population upwards of nearly one million residents with no foreign food imports, no petroleum-based fertilizers, no industrial herbicides or pesticides, and no unnatural runoff into soil, waterways, and reefs. With careful, strict land management practices, a keen respect for the natural cycles existent here, a clear acknowledgment of the limitations of water and food sources, and the highest value being simply a respect for the land as the source of Life, the people of Hawai’i, at one time, fed themselves and left no pollution in the process.
Today, Hawai’i imports around 85 – 90% of its food.
How and why did this shift? How did Hawai’i, land of abundance, devolve from a miracle of self-sustaining agriculture to an industrial chemical intensive research lab that depends on petroleum and the outside world to feed itself?
There are many answers to this question- but a key shift occurred when certain empowered trustees and land managers opted to change the course of Hawaiian agriculture (thus altering the destiny of Hawai’i itself) from self-sustaining to an agricultural export economy based on imported low-income workers, imported artificial inputs (the first major imported fertilizer was seagull guano) and mono-crop methodology. Native farmers were displaced, water was diverted and polluted, and food began needing to be imported in order to feed the people of Hawai’i. Essentially, when we stopped viewing the ‘Āina as a source of life and sustenance and instead viewed it as a source of manmade riches, we began a centuries long WAR with the ‘āina.
And so, we acknowledge this long time war with the ‘āina. And now, a new chapter has emerged, and the people of Hawai’i are awakened.
There is a massive debate over GMOs in Hawai’i at present. The Hawai’i Farm Bureau- funded largely through their management of local farmers markets, like the one at KCC- has allocated $400,000 to a propaganda campaign to discredit the Maui Moratorium on GMOs (the first citizen’s initiative brought to ballot in the history of Maui county). They have chosen to defend the biotech firms. They have chosen to defend their toxic habits of spraying herbicides on the food and flowers they grow. They have chosen to defend their desire to perpetuate a modernized, chemical-intensive, low employment model of “farming” (their argument is a loss of jobs- even though organic farming employs more than conventional or GMO farming), rather than work to produce food and flowers without negatively impacting the ‘āina, the streams, reefs and air surrounding their farms.
The biotech firms themselves have allocated millions of dollars into a massive propaganda campaign to frighten Maui residents (including home gardeners) into thinking the Moratorium would directly affect them on a penalty level- which it cannot. The lies have become emotional, appealing to the good nature of local people, crying about jobs, jail time and massive fines. Biotech PR has managed to superimpose a “local face” onto their facades, implying that they, the largest war chemical firms on Earth, responsible for generations of death and environmental destruction, are somehow one and the same with the gentle, caring local gardener or farmer. They are not, I assure you. The people of Hawai’i have verily never witnessed- at least in this era- a campaign of lies in such grand proportion. The firms would have you believe the destruction caused by temporarily halting their unchecked operations is greater than the daily destruction caused by such. It is not. They would have you believe that the new law will destroy the economy. It will not. It will merely temper their racket. They would have you believe that they are good stewards of the land. They are anything but. They are servants of their stockholders, and their employees are expendable. This is common corporate management and they are no exemption. They would have you believe that their practices are safe and regulated by State and Federal governments. They cannot accurately claim that they are safe- because no one has scientifically examined what they are doing. They are not regulated by the State- as Abercrombie famously said in a symposium on big Ag to the Hawai’i biotech execs: “You don’t have to lobby us! We’re here to lobby you!” They are not regulated by the Feds: Michael Taylor, former attorney of, then VP, of Monsanto, is head of Obama’s FDA, while Tom Vilsack, former governor of Iowa (GE corn central) and biotech “Governor of the Year” is head of the USDA. The fox is guarding the henhouse. “The regulators ain’t workin’ for you; they sold you out and you ain’t got a clue” (from my song “The Story of the GMO”). The biotech firms would have you believe that GMO is sound science. It is not. It is a science in its infancy. They would have you believe that they are feeding the world. It is true they are feeding the world- thanks to our compulsory federal subsidies. GE food is cheap because you’ve already paid for it with your taxes. But their claim that the world cannot feed itself without them is pure deceit: economists know that humans produce more food than they can consume- but we throw most of it away. It’s a distribution issue. But most factitious of all of the deception, the biotech firms have defaulted to the excuse that because they have been doing this for years, it is ok to continue.
It is not. It is not ok to continue to burden the environment with such a massive toxic load. On Kaua’i alone, chemical companies spray over 200 days of the year. In Hale’iwa, organic farmers complain to me in desperation their inability to continue to farm due to the chemicals contaminating their farms. One even spoke of suicide. On Maui, GE plots as well as sugarcane continue to pollute the ‘āina at alarming rates. The air quality, the soil quality- often sterilized of all beneficial bacterium in order to test herbicide efficacy- is being brutally compromised. Human health is diminishing because these chemicals obliterate humid and fulvic acid content in the soil. They are making cheap, patented wares, forcing you to buy them through government subsidies, lusting for total market monopoly, polluting the environment in the process, and serving up crops devoid of essential nutritional elements that can only be gotten through healthy soil.
The Maui GMO moratorium is not a farming ban. It is a ban on research that requires intensive chemical inputs. It is a ban on untested crops that are being released into nature with no containment. It is a ban on the practice of stealing hundreds of millions of gallons of water for the benefit of a few multinational war chemical companies who see more money in the business of patenting food and drug crops than manufacturing weaponry. It is a ban on the crime of polluting Hawai’i for the financial gain of foreign stockholders. It is a ban on using Hawai’i as a remote laboratory. It is a ban on the destruction of the air quality, soil health and waterbodies of a fragile ecosystem. It is a ban on the abuse of sacred land by corporations that don’t grow food, but rather, grow marketshare.
The people of Maui have an incredibly rare and valuable opportunity to vote YES on the moratorium on GMOs in Maui county. This will cost jobs, undoubtedly. The employees of Monsanto on Moloka’i may lose their current livelihood. Not because they should or they have to- but because Monsanto’s market share depends on cultivating patented, large scale GE commodity crops rather than growing food for local consumption. (Why is everyone so terrified of having to grow their own food?)
So ask yourself: what is more important to you, status quo, or the health of the ‘āina? Are you clear in your understanding of what this means for Hawai’i? Do you realize we hardly grow any food here, that the majority of what is grown here is a patented experiment that benefits no one save the stockholders of the biotech firms? Do you understand that the lobbyists against the Moratorium are groups like the Moloka’i Chamber of Commerce, the Hawai’i Crop Improvement Association, and others who value money over the health of the land?
When you argue for one side or the other, ask yourself: am I really arguing for my own benefit, or am I acting from pride, ego and insensitivity to the collateral consequences of that which I am advocating?
Vote YES. And regardless of the outcome of this singular event, mark my words: this is merely the beginning of an agricultural revolution in Hawai’i.
TO THOSE WHO SAY THE MORATORIUM IS FLAWED:
Nature is broken. People are broken. Society is broken.
Often, when a solution is presented to fix these things- to recreate balance- people say, “you can’t do that because your solution is flawed”. And in saying the solution is flawed, they are usually correct: Of course it is flawed. Solutions to big problems are always flawed, because they are an attempt to address a profoundly sick situation, to try to change an entrenched system, to try to alter the unhealthy and destructive behaviors of people. They are David in the face of Goliath. They will be laughed at, mocked, questioned and disregarded, until there is enough momentum to take them seriously.
Collateral damage is a natural byproduct of shifting habits, patterns, and positions. Look to Nature: Everything in Nature occurs to achieve balance, to bring about Pono. Storms, hurricanes, floods, volcanos relieving pressure. Such occurrences can be violent, destructive and devastating; yet, they are necessary, and in the greater view of Earth as a living entity, integral to a balanced ecosystem.
When you are entrenched in a system that is destructive, there is no easy way out. We are rooted in a heritage of destructive land management practices. We are participants in a centuries long war with the ‘āina. We are partners in a marriage to an agricultural paradigm based on fossil fuels, industrial chemicals and waste byproducts. And you’re afraid of divorce. And they know it.
Divorce is ugly. I watched my parents go through it. It was brutal, destructive, miserable and sobering. But if they hadn’t done it they would’ve destroyed each other, and us.
Untie the knot. Of course it will be messy. Divorce the biotech firms. Call them out. Either way they will continue to fight. And so will we. This won’t end with this vote- it is only the beginning. War is messy, and this is a chance to move it one step closer to the end: end the reign of toxic export agriculture in Hawai’i. Call in the regulators. Wake up and protect Hawai’i. Vote Yes and divorce your complacency. Start healing now, so that the keiki of the future will inherit, not a broken island home, but one that will convey all of the benefits and joys that the Hawaiians of old experienced.
Recreate Hawai’i Now.