Big Agriculture is wearing out its welcome on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, which is being used a major testing ground for genetically modified seeds and pesticides.
Back in 1970, Joni Mitchell tried to warn us about what would happen to “paradise” if corporate interests were put ahead of the environment and people’s health. She pleaded with farmers to “put away that DDT now.”
“Give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees, please,” she sang.
But as residents of the Hawaiian island of Kauai can attest, the U.S. government didn’t listen. In the United States, companies have long been allowed to use toxic chemicals known to cause medical issues such as autism, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and many forms of cancer, as well as sexual development problems — especially in the name of boosting crop strength and yields.
According to a Consumer Reports survey, 92 percent of Americans support legislation that would require labels indicating that foods contain genetically modified ingredients. But thousands of people living on the island of Kauai are going deeper to the root of the issue by fighting for regulation on the grown of genetically engineered crops.
According to Hawaii state pesticide records, 18 tons of 22 restricted use pesticides are used on the island each year. Fifteen of those 22 pesticides have been linked to cancer in recent years in studies conducted by the American Cancer Society and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Many on the island wonder: If a crop is immune to pesticides and insects, but the chemicals used during the growing process are not safe for humans, what is the point of cultivating a genetically modified seed?
Farming may not be the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about the Hawaiian Islands, but the island of Kauai — specifically, the town of Waimea — has historically served as farmland. In fact, many of island’s residents are the descendents of Japanese and Filipino farmers who came to the islands four or five generations ago to work on sugar cane farms.
When the sugar economy crashed in the 1990s, many on the island were left jobless. As a result, lush, green farmland quickly turned into empty, brown fields. Agribusiness companies such as DuPont Pioneer, Syngenta AG, BASF Plant Science and Agrigenetics Inc. (Dow AgroSciences) — companies that had been planting seed corn on the island since the late 1960s — intervened at the request of the state in 1998 and began turning the once vibrant sugar plantations into expansive GMO laboratories, testing genetically modified corn, soy, canola, rice and sunflower seeds.
The agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology giant Monsanto is currently not active on Kauai, operating instead on the islands of Oahu, Maui and Molokai.
The most successful crop on Kauai is the Roundup Ready corn seed. The seed is designed to allow farmers to spray an entire cornfield with weed-killing chemicals such as Roundup or glyphosate without disrupting the crop’s growth.
In addition to Roundup, 62 other types of pesticide compounds are sprayed on the cornfields annually. While the pesticides have all been approved for use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the combination of the chemical compounds has never been studied.
Many residents of Kauai suffer from medical conditions such as asthma, severe skin rashes, nosebleeds, allergies and migraines, as well as other birth defects at a record rate — ailments that many have attributed to the heavy use of pesticides and other chemicals on the island. In one community of around 800 people, there are 37 cancer cases — more than 10 times the state’s cancer rate.
Given all of the health issues the island’s residents are facing, officials with Kauai County, which encompasses the entire island, are trying to reclaim authority when it comes to pesticide use, since they argue the U.S. Department of Agriculture is not doing enough to protect public health.
“People on my island are getting sick,” wrote Gary Hooser, a Kauai County Council member and president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action, on his blog in February 2013. “Many believe their sickness is being caused by the secondary and cumulative impacts connected to the growing of genetically modified organisms.”
“Yet when I’ve asked these companies directly and officially in writing to disclose what chemicals and in what quantities they are spraying, the industrial agrochemical GMO companies on Kauai have refused to do so.”
Taking on “Big Ag”
Along with the nonprofit groups Earthjustice, Hawaiian Justice Legal Counsel and the Center for Food Safety, Hooser introduced Bill 2491, or Ordinance 960, last fall. It would essentially create a no-spray zone near schools, medical facilities and other places where people live and work, but not ban GMO crops entirely.
Under Ordinance 960, all companies or farmers that spray more than 5 pounds or 15 gallons of restricted use pesticides — chemicals that require a special permit from the EPA — would be required to publicly disclose how many chemicals they are using annually — and how much. The amendment would be in effect until these biotech companies were able to prove to the county that the use of pesticides, even in high amounts, does not harm public health.
Fearing a lawsuit, Mayor Bernard Carvalho vetoed the legislation. However, his veto was overridden by the county council last fall, allowing the legislation to proceed.
The amendment was supposed to go into effect this August. It would have required Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer, Dow AgroSciences, BASF Plant Science, as well as Kauai Coffee, the largest coffee grower in the state, to disclose the pesticides used on the fields as well as genetically modified crops.
In January, three of those companies — Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer and Dow AgroSciences — filed a lawsuit against the county in U.S. District Court for trying to implement Ordinance 960. They argued that the legislation “irrationally prohibits Plaintiffs from growing any crop, whether genetically modified or not, within arbitrarily drawn buffer zones inapplicable to other growers, and restricts Plaintiffs’ pesticide use within those buffer zones.”
The companies also argued in their complaint that disclosing what chemicals are used would “unnecessarily” expose them to “corporate espionage, vandalism and environmental terrorism.”
A similar piece of legislation was passed and implemented in Lake, Mendocino, Marin and Trinity counties in California, but that land wasn’t as important to these agribusinesses as Kauai’s. The tropical weather on the Hawaiian Islands allows the companies to have at least three growing seasons per year, instead of just one, as in the case of the California counties.
As Mark Phillipson, head of Hawaii corporate affairs for Syngenta, explained, it takes about 10 to 12 growth cycles to determine the effectiveness of a new seed variety. On the mainland, this could take 10 to 12 years because there’s typically only one growing season per year. But since these companies sometimes push for four growing seasons a year in Kauai, they can test more agricultural chemicals and new varieties of genetically engineered seed varieties in order to increase their profits.
According to a USDA report from 2009, these companies earn around $146.3 million per year — and that’s just from the sales of plants and pesticides produced in Hawaii.
“Kauaʻi is ‘ground zero’ for a small group of international chemical companies that apply large quantities of dangerous ‘restricted use’ pesticides near Kauaʻi homes, schools, hospitals and streams,” wrote Hooser earlier this month.
“Rather than comply, the chemical companies filed a lawsuit in federal court and began aggressively lobbying at the State legislature to take away our County authority,” he continued, explaining that the residents of Kauai are fighting back and will defend the island “from the harmful actions of these companies” by “valuing health and environment above corporate profits, and most importantly, fostering a community engaged in its own governance.”
Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for the Center for Food Safety, echoes Hooser. In a press release last year, he said, “The people of Kauai have been remarkable in their persistence in the face of corporate power.” He also applauded the Kauai County Council for “listening to the people and acting in their best interest rather than bowing to multinational corporations.”
After the passage of Ordinance 960 last fall, the companies not only filed a lawsuit, but also pledged to only support GMO-friendly candidates in this year’s general elections. For residents like Klayton Kubo, who lives at the east end of Waimea near the DuPont open-air test fields, this is troubling, since the mayor and all seven County Council seats are up for re-election.
Kubo has been fighting for more than a decade to bring attention to the use of these toxic chemicals.
On June 14, Kubo posted a video on YouTube in which he demonstrates how by just spraying his window screens with a hose, a stream of red-tinted pesticides dribbles down the walls of his white house.
In the YouTube videos, Kubo explains that he and other people living in “Poison Valley” have to put screens on their windows because small pieces of grit, toxic vapors and chemical odors are transported through the air from the DuPont test fields near his home. This debris finds it way onto homes and into people’s lungs and the Waimea River.
“The spectacle of four multibillion-dollar multinational chemical companies suing for the right to continue spraying Kauai’s residents with acutely toxic chemicals, and to keep what they spray and when they spray it a secret, is shameful,” Paul Achitoff, managing attorney of Earthjustice, said in a press release after the companies filed the lawsuit against the county.
Although the biotech companies have tried to undermine Kubo’s credibility and downplay the gravity of the issue, Kubo’s concerns do deserve serious consideration.
In 2006 and 2008, Waimea Canyon Middle School, which is near the test field operated by Syngenta, had to be evacuated after some 60 students at the school were reportedly hospitalized with flu-like symptoms. Many residents blamed the blowing toxic chemicals for the epidemic, but the biotech companies blamed the nearby fields of stinkweed — a plant that is used to treat skin ailments, colds and menstrual cramps, and to flavor Mexican dishes and alcohols.
Due to the concerns about the kinds of chemicals floating in the air, federal, state and local government agencies joined together in 2010 to test the air quality near the school.
They tested for the presence of 24 toxic pesticides used on the test fields and for chemicals released by the stinkweed.
The researchers concluded that there was no way to determine for sure whether the GMO test fields were responsible for the mass sickness. The symptoms the children experienced such as dizziness, headaches and nausea, they said, “could be consistent with exposure to certain pesticides, but could also be caused by exposure to volatile chemicals emitted from natural sources, such as stinkweed.”
But as a recent news report pointed out, the researchers neglected to look for more than 30 specific pesticides that were used at the GMO test fields during the air quality study — including two of the most dangerous chemicals: the weed-killer paraquat and an insecticide known as methomyl.
Matt Snowden, a teacher at the middle school, disagreed with the report’s findings — even though the state’s Department of Agriculture agreed with the biotech companies that the stinkweed may have been responsible and that residents were overreacting — which is why he decided to attend a Pesticide Action Network Conference in Berkeley, California.
Snowden says that when he came back to Kauai after the conference, he installed passive airborne detection systems and found traces of metolachlor, chlorpyrifos and atrazine. (Chlorpyrifos is banned from residential use in the U.S., and like many other chemicals that are approved for use in the U.S., atrazine is banned throughout Europe. Unlike in the U.S., when there is substantial, credible evidence of danger to human or environmental health, even if it’s not completely proven, European law requires protective action be taken. U.S. law, on the other hand, requires proof before regulatory action can be taken.)
Amid their efforts to ease the public’s concerns about the use of these chemicals, DuPont Pioneer, Syngenta, BASF Plant Science and Dow AgroSciences voluntarily released data detailing how many pesticides were used on the test fields in Kauai from December 2013 to April 2014. After analyzing the information posted on the state database and comparing that information with what was released in a 2009 U.S. Geological Survey, Paul Koberstein, editor of the environmental journal Cascadia Times, found that only four states — Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina and Indiana — had a higher use of toxic pesticides than the island.
However, it should be noted that these companies often publish the data on the amount of chemicals used during a single growing season on Kauai, then compare this information to the total amount of chemicals used in a year in states known for heavy chemical use, like Kentucky.
Kauai’s human residents aren’t the only ones feeling the effects of the chemicals being used on the island. The island’s animals and the environment are also being negatively impacted by these agribusinesses growing GMO crops on about 12,000 acres of farmland on the island.
Since Kauai is only about 70 miles wide, the farmland reaches from the base of the mountains to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Wind carries the chemicals into waterways, as the average wind speed on the island is between 8 and 9 miles per hour, according to the National Weather Service.
The EPA prohibits the use of pesticides at wind speeds of 10 mph or more, but some residents say the companies appear to have completely disregarded that rule. If the companies truly abided by the wind restrictions, they likely wouldn’t be able to spray pesticides six days a week.
In October, the group GMO-Free Kaua’i posted a video showing how the use of these highly toxic chemicals has decimated the landscape and created a dry, dusty wasteland where dust devils are a common occurrence. The group explains that the average test field is sprayed with chemicals 240 days out of the year, allowing the pesticides to not only drift in the tradewinds, but also to settle into the dust and soil. As a result, once moist and healthy soil dries out, allowing dust devils to form.
Unfortunately for the 68,000 people who call the island home, these vortexes pick up toxic chemicals used on the test fields and transport them miles away, contaminating waterways, plants, animals and people. According to Kauai County Councilman Hooser’s blog, biologists estimate that the toxic chemicals running off into rivers that empty into the Pacific killed more than 50,000 sea urchins near the shores of the west side of the island in 2012.
Meanwhile, Kauai receives the most rain of all the Hawaiian Islands, and long, interconnected lava tubes running throughout the island carry chemicals back into the ocean with every rising tide.
According to Oriana Kalama, founder of Ocean Defender, the North Shore region of Kauai has also seen a number of devastating coral reef diseases pop up, likely due to the excessive use of chemicals — such as cadmium, chromium, nickel, cobalt, copper, selenium, arsenic, dioxin and vanadium — that are applied to GMO crops.
Kalama told MintPress News that cyanobacteria, the oldest organism on Earth, has somehow mutated and is eating healthy reefs at a rate of 4 inches per week.
“This means that entire coral colonies are dying two months after the infection begins,” she said. This leaves the reef in such a debilitated state that it can’t fight off the disease, which may have contributed to the massive die-off of sea urchins, the decline in the local fish populations and excessive algae covering the reefs.
“Something in the water is not only feeding this bacteria but impairing the reef’s immune system to fight back,” she said.
Though Kalama says she can not definitively prove that the GMO chemicals are destroying the reef, the chemicals found in the reef are ones used by the biotech companies operating on the island. She has ordered a $30,000 chemical analysis of a reef by TestAmerica, hoping to prove that the chemicals are making their way into the water.
She and others are not finished fighting back against the “biotech cartel.” “Hawaii is tired of being the guinea pigs for the biotech companies and the damage done to our land and reefs is clear and obvious.”
“We don’t want them here, we don’t want them anywhere on Earth.”
Local papaya farmers have also called attention to the issue, pointing out that the chemicals are affecting their crops — even the organic varieties — and killing bee populations.
News that farmers who were once planting non-GMO crops are affected by the blowing pesticides has become a concern for many activists such as Lauryn Rego, who says that despite eating a diet that is about 75 percent organic, a urinalysis showed that she has about 7.5 parts per billion of the Roundup pesticide in her urine.
While a safe level of pesticides in urine has not been established, Rego wrote that in her opinion, no level of these chemicals that are known to cause severe medical issues if ingested or inhaled, is safe. She pointed to an exposure study conducted by Monsanto in 1994 that found farmers who did not wear gloves when mixing and applying chemicals in the test fields tested higher than those who wore gloves — 10 ppb compared to 2 ppb — and wondered why her levels were similar to those of the farmers who were applying the chemicals without gloves.
Standing with “Big Ag”
Despite all of the problems many residents are facing and the environmental impact of the toxic pesticides, some Native Hawaiians are siding with the biotech companies and working to stop the implementation of Ordinance 960.
Many of these “pro-ag” Hawaiians are employed by these big biotech companies and work in the GMO test fields. They say they are concerned that the bill would hurt the local economy by taking away some 2,000 jobs on the island, which they argue would have a ripple effect, as many people would suddenly find themselves without an income.
The biotech companies have used these agricultural workers’ concerns about losing their jobs to run ads and write editorials in the local newspaper to make it seem like most of those in favor of the ordinance are “haoles,” or non-native white people, who don’t live anywhere near the farms and who don’t understand how GMOs or open-air test fields work.
The companies have also hired Marjorie Bronster, a former Hawaii attorney general, to legally challenge the ordinance. Talking to Salon in 2013, Bronster said if the biotech companies are victorious in their legal challenge against Kauai, “the county would be liable for legal fees and damages,” which is why some county council members have reportedly been hesitant to moving forward with the legislation.
Hooser, however, argues that these agrochemical companies produce GMO crops on public lands and don’t pay any property taxes. He and others believe that the health risks are not worth allowing these companies to continue operating on the island. And many Hawaiian Natives, like Kubo, agree with this point, and say that those working in the GMO fields could find work on local organic farms.
“Growing genetically modified organisms, using experimental pesticides and spraying a wide array of restricted and non restricted pesticides on a mass scale have impacts on our island, our health and our environment,” Hooser wrote on his blog last year.
After county governments started cracking down on the GMO test fields, Hooser noted, the biotech companies operating on Kauai and Monsanto tried to pass a bill through the state Legislature that would take away the counties’ rights to monitor the companies’ activities.
The member of the Kauai County Council expressed concern about this consistent push to block counties from getting involved, explaining that when it comes to determining who is ultimately responsible for monitoring these companies, the state’s health and agriculture departments point the finger at each other.
“The (DOH) conducts no regular consistent systematic testing of soil, water or air in the vicinity of these industrial operations. And there has never been a comprehensive evaluation of the impact of this industry on adjacent communities,” Hooser wrote in January.
“On Kauai, companies that apply pesticides 250 times per year might be inspected by the DOA seven times per year and 43% of the inspection logs are redacted and blocked from public review,” he continued.
“It can take years for the DOA to complete investigations of pesticide drift and the surrounding community is not notified or warned until after the investigation is concluded.
“Taking away local control and replacing it with a one size fits all big brother solution, managed by industry friendly agencies woefully ill-equipped to fulfill their existing mandates is the answer being sought by Monsanto and friends.”
It’s no surprise that from January to April this year, Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer and associated trade groups have reportedly spent more than $50,000 lobbying the state Legislature to pass laws that would essentially make county laws like Ordinance 960 unenforceable.
They also open up their checkbooks to support pro-GMO candidates.
Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie has received more than $60,000 from these companies, making him the top recipient of “Big Ag” campaign donations. Mufi Hannemann, former Honolulu mayor and Independent gubernatorial candidate, has received a similar amount to Abercrombie, while pro-GMO county council members receive between $15,000 and $18,000.
“The influx of big money and threat of unlimited ‘independent expenditures’ have resulted in politicians statewide increasingly placing the interests of corporations over the interests of citizens,” said Barbara Polk, chair of the non-partisan grassroots group Common Cause Hawaii.
Ashley Lukens, program director for the Hawaii Center for Food Safety, agrees that the influence of corporate money in local politics has made issues like pesticide disclosure and GMO labeling confusing. It also turns something like transparency when it comes to chemical use into a radical issue, she noted.
On June 19, the U.S. District Court delayed the implementation of Ordinance 960 to Oct. 1, instead of Aug. 16, since the court will be holding hearings regarding the legislation on July 23.
“The delay allows the court sufficient time to issue its various decisions after the July hearings, without the parties having to deal with underlying bases for Ordinance 960 and the expected discovery,” said David Minkin, the attorney defending Kauai County.
In the next month, the Small Business Regulatory Review Board is expected to hold public hearings and meetings in order to receive public feedback on the legislation.
How the courts will decide in the case will likely depend on whether the public and judges are as heavily influenced by the financial powers of these biotech companies as some lawmakers have proven to be.