In the Haiku autumn dusk, a circle of farmers hand in hand stands to give thanks for the earth, food and the breath of life. In the sacred scene before a potluck of hand-grown and handmade foods, there are many hands, 120 heads, and waiting plates.
At this September meeting of Maui Farmers United (a chapter of the National Farmers Union), local farmers gathered to discuss topics like photosynthesis, our relationship to the sun, recipes and soil. November’s GMO Moratorium bill came up, too. While Hawaii Farmers Union United has no stance on the bill, a few of Maui’s farmers weren’t reluctant to voice their opinions.
I was there to hear the claims made in this local debate over GMOs and talk to the experts and people the moratorium would affect. It began with a letter.
The climax of that August Citizens Against the Maui County Farming Ban (CAMCFB) letter from that appeared in my mailbox is in the sixth paragraph, where it labels the Moratorium on the Cultivation of Genetically Engineered Organisms “deeply flawed and misleading to voters.”
The letter dispensed into mailboxes across the county makes at least three claims. First, “While claiming to be a ‘temporary moratorium,’ this initiative would actually place an immediate and permanent ban on many types of farming in the County and make it illegal for farmers to keep growing numerous crops.”
Second, “Under the ban, farmers who choose to grow genetically engineered crops would be subject to severe criminal and civil penalties, including steep fines and possible jail time.”
And third, “In fact, if this ban were in place when a virus almost destroyed Hawaii’s papaya farms, researchers would not have been able to develop the Rainbow Papaya, which saved our papaya industry.”
The actual ballot measure text (accessed at Shakamovement.org/law), on the other hand, states that the “ban” is not permanent, but a “Temporary Moratorium” that declares a “Person or entities affected by and seeking release from the Temporary Moratorium in Maui County must provide Maui County the funding necessary to complete an Environmental and Public Health Impacts Study (EPHIS).” Nor are effects of the moratorium immediate, as Section 5 states it does not apply to “the propagation, cultivation, raising, growing or testing of GE Organisms that are in mid-growth cycle when this chapter is enacted.” Those who violate the bill do face possible fines and imprisonment.
As for the rainbow papaya, that was developed by Drs. Richard Manshardt and Dennis Gonsalves, two university researchers. Section 5 of the bill exempts “any fully accredited college or university that engages in non-commercial scientific research, medical research, or education using GE Organisms, provided that such activities are conducted under enclosed indoor laboratory conditions, with the utmost precautionary measures to prevent accidental release of GE Organisms into the outside environment.”
In addition to glossy mail-outs, CAMCFB has spent about $80,000 (See FCC data and Honolulu Civil Beat’s “Ad Watch” for a good analysis of CAMCFB’s advertisement techniques) a week for commercial spots on the major networks in hopes of killing the measure. The organization itself, though apparently based in South Maui, does not maintain an office at 1215 S. Kihei Rd., the address listed on their many mailers (that’s, in fact, The UPS Store).
In any case, they go on to claim that genetically engineered crops are environmentally friendly, pest and disease resistant, less water intensive, and deemed safe by federal regulatory agencies and other science-based institutions. CAMCFB projects over 600 jobs will be lost as a result of the moratorium and “Molokai’s largest employer” (read: Monsanto) would be shut down, causing local farmers and businesses to suffer.
Which is what brought me to the MFU meeting. People spoke in support of the bill, and urged others to read it and vote. I couldn’t find a single person who was afraid of fines, job loss or jail time.
“The impact [of the moratorium] can be remediated,” Olinda farmer Russ Greenleaf told me before explaining that the bill represents a time of transition into small and locally-sustaining farms. “You’re not talking about farmers necessarily being impacted but more farm workers, and there’s enough land on this island and enough demand that people farming 5 or 10 acres can make a living doing it.”
“A large majority of farmers in Maui County won’t be affected at all,” said Elan Goldbart of Hale Akua Garden Farms. “I think it will actually support an effort for new organic farmers to have a foothold in land that could be accessed.”
“They’re not making food for us to eat!” someone complained. Another farmer and supporter of the bill, Vincent Mina of the family-run Kahanu Aina Greens, explained further. “This agricultural economy was built on a plantation economy,” he said. “It’s only owned by a few landowners. You can’t buy land for the most part on large tracts—it’s owned by a few people.” He added, “The plantation put a lot of local families through school—it raised a lot of families. But where the trajectory of the plantation failed itself was that it went into a mono-crop and petrochemical model that will not sustain itself over a long period of time when you’re dealing with the soils. So in that spirit it hasn’t been a vital source of food production. The intensive use of petrochemical inputs pretty much took plantations out of being viable [local sources of food]. Plus the fact that other parts of the world are able to grow what they were growing cheaper and get it here cheaper made them lose their economic advantage.”
Indeed, the average American meal travels 1,500 miles from its food source to make its way to our plates. Compare the sustainability of shipping and trucking food around the globe to an HFUU potluck, where the distance covered for the locally grown and made dishes is probably less than 50 miles (some farmers were from Hana).
Further, Maui Farmer and supporter of the moratorium, Simon Russell wrote in a 2013 Civil Beat article on food sovereignty in Hawaii, “92 percent of the value of our agricultural production was exported, while at the same time our hungry population imported 92 percent of the food consumed.” Estimates say that if the barges were to stop coming, there would be enough food supply for six days. What is Hawaii’s number one agricultural export? Seeds.
Monsanto’s 2013 annual report to the County of Maui states that it uses less than .05 percent of all agricultural land available in Maui County. In the same document, they claim 25,000 acres of land in the state which employs 1,400 residents. Impressive as that sounds, that land (by our local farmers’ estimates) could house and support about 2,500 farmers.
“It’s another case of the one percent using their money and scare tactics to influence everyone else,” one farmer told me regarding the biotech companies. According to USDA statistics, 600 farm workers represent less than five percent of Hawaii’s farmers. Monsanto as a company with (well) over 2000 acres of land and making (well) more than $500,000 in sales represents the top one percent of all “farms” in the state. What’s more, the touted “600 jobs” figure is taken from the number of Maui residents employed by the biotech companies—who have not made any statement regarding the complete ceasing of operations or release of employees if the moratorium bill were to pass.
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Dr. Lorrin Pang, the Maui County Health Officer, stresses that economic interest shouldn’t influence decisions regarding safety and public health. “I support the moratorium bill and the basic reason is these things have been let loose on the market without adequate study. Simple as that. We’re not saying they’re dangerous, we’re not saying they’re safe,” the district health officer told me while speaking as a citizen. “We just don’t know.”
His finger bangs down passionately on the table whenever he makes a point. “I’m not talking about GM crops, I’m talking about GM experimentation on these islands,” he stated. “According to the suit they use 80 plus chemicals,” he said, referring to a lawsuit against the Syngenta and Pioneer agro-chemical companies on Kauai. “It is not just the amount, it’s the frequency. There are publications coming out now that show just the combination of two brings out fantastic birth defects which are confirmed by epidemiologic studies.”
When you combine chemicals, according to Pang, the mixture can be more than a sum of the individual effects due to possible interactions of potentiation and the blocking of detoxification pathways. Chemicals can overlap multiple ways: by being sprayed together, persisting in the environment together, persisting in one’s body together, or through damage overlap. “When you have 15 chemicals together you have about 30,000 possible combinations,” Pang told me. “When you have 80 chemicals like in Kauai,” he stated, there are a trillion-trillion possible combinations.” According to Monsanto’s 2013 County of Maui report, they use 19 different restricted-use pesticides on Maui and Molokai.
It’s the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) job to test pesticides, but given the magnitude of combinations not every possibility is tested. Pang remembers a recent county council meeting that called on the EPA to testify. According to Pang, the EPA said they “choose the one that might be neurotoxic, then choose the other one that might be neurotoxic then test those two or three.” Pang pointed out that their method of picking and choosing has been proven to be ineffective, given nine or more chemicals. “When you get to 80 plus, forget it,” he said.
“When you have so many damn combinations you don’t know what to do, you test the whole damn mixture.” Pang told me, citing the National Academy of Science recommendation. “That’s all we ask. This goes to show–and it’s public testimony–that the statements by the EPA are so off and misleading–or just plain stupid. So I don’t trust them at reading their own cited references. I don’t trust them at calculating anything, and they’re in charge of the pesticides. If the agency is not going to protect us and the state and county defer to the EPA, then we have a right to protect ourselves. The end.”
Some fear that regulation is compromised by the placement of former Monsanto employees in agency positions such as Michael Taylor (former Monsanto lobbyist turned FDA commissioner) or Clarence Thomas (former Monsanto lawyer turned Supreme Court Justice). The central intent of the GMO Moratorium bill is to respond to these perceived lapses of safety measures regarding GE practices and provide for the health of our county.
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The county-level regulation of GMOs would be redundant, UH Maui College genetics professor Sally Irwin argues. To her knowledge, GE food is safe. “I oppose it [the bill] for several reasons,” she said. “The number one reason is that I feel like genetically modified foods—or I call them genetically enhanced foods—are really well tested and there’s never been any evidence of any kind of harm done to humans, animals, or the environment.” She added, “There’s a lot of evidence that it’s better for the environment to have them. There’s no scientific basis to ban them; actually there’s a lot of reasons to support them.”
In her Maui College office, the sun filtered onto a Whole Foods bag with the bold printing “Avoiding GMOs?” as she spoke with the underlying frustration of a scientist who has dedicated years to research only to have efforts at advancement slowed by political debate. The scientific consensus is that “They are safe and well regulated and well tested,” she told me, citing literature reviews that have surveyed over a thousand studies.
“I can’t think of a field of science that’s been this covered,” she said, describing state and federal testing and regulation. “Every crop is case by case. So, a new gene into a different plant into a different environment always has to be checked. And it is.” She explained that now “We know exactly what the gene is, what protein it codes for, where it goes into the genome of the organism, so we can test for consequences very well to see if something is being made besides what we thought.” This happens sometimes, Irwin admitted, such as in one case of a chemical resembling a nut allergen, but that was discovered in the research stage before that organism went to market.
Irwin later emailed me some studies on the regulation and testing measures for GMOs, which elaborated on the sophisticated “safety assessment framework evolved by international organizations like FAO, WHO, Codex and OECD,” which include “molecular characterization of inserted genes and stability of the trait, toxicity and allergenicity potential of the expressed substances, compositional analysis, potential for gene transfer to gut microflora and unintentional effects of the genetic modification.”
“In any technology there’s always some risk,” Irwin added, so ultimately it comes to a risk-benefit analysis. “I use a comparison to vaccines,” the geneticist said. “For both of those the consensus–95-98 percent of experts and the studies out there–say the benefits far outweigh the risk. For vaccines there actually are very known risks. Some people have a bad reaction to vaccines. It doesn’t happen very often but it does happen and it can happen again. Allergic reactions and different things that we can’t always predict, but the benefits—how many people it saves compared to that—most people think that it’s worth it.” Yet for all the controversy with GE there are no known negative effects–just benefits and well regulated risks, Irwin repeated, sounding slightly exasperated.
These benefits aren’t just for industry profits, Irwin pointed out, referring to Gates Foundation and Howard Buffett Foundation humanitarian GE research in the islands. In 1988, Sally Irwin was part of a group of researchers from universities and other institutions in the San Diego area. “We were talking about what the problems that farmers were facing then and what were the problems that they will probably be facing in the future,” she said. “We talked about the fact that the best possible thing was when they could have natural resistance so we don’t have to put in all these chemicals. If we could reduce the chemicals or reduce the toxicity of the chemicals in the environment, obviously that’s what we want to do.” With traditional breeding this is a process that can take seven to 10 years as plants are selected and bred, then backcrossed with wild types when undesirable traits occur or resistant genes are desired.
This laborious process often reaches dead ends when intensive breeding yields sterile varieties. And even then, there are some traits that simply cannot be arrived at without the inclusion of the undesired traits. Irwin recalled a conversation where the researchers imagined that “if we could just go into these plants and just get the genes that we want and put them back in” that would save an immeasurable amount of time and work. Over 20 years later, this plant geneticists’ dream has become reality, though one steeped in controversy.
What’s happened, according to Irwin, “is that the whole pesticide question has gotten completely intertwined with the genetically engineered question.” Irwin added, “Most of the moratorium seems to point to pesticides being the problem and what people are concerned with, but yet this isn’t a ban on pesticides this is a ban on genetically enhanced food which includes things like papayas that have no connection with pesticides at all. It’s actually going to ban a lot of things that have no connection with pesticides. Lots of farming, golf courses, people’s homes and hotels, use these pesticides so if that’s their concern–that pesticides aren’t being used correctly or are not good for the environment–that’s what they should be targeting. They shouldn’t be targeting GE foods.”
Indeed, without using GMOs, hotel and sugar operations on Maui have been destructive enough to Maui’s soil, air and water. In recent times, since the advent of GMOs, pesticide use has gone down, Irwin told me. And although herbicide use has risen slightly, the use of the more toxic and persistent types have gone down in favor of the less toxic RoundUp (which is manufactured by Monsanto).
Formerly, traditional farmers used crop dusters to spray massive amounts of Bt (an organic pesticide based on a soil bacterium), in a scenario that Irwin regards as the worst case, quickly driving the evolution of pests. In contrast, genetically modified organisms with the Bt gene, have a small impact.
The moratorium would “increase the amount of pesticides being used,” Irwin told me, “because all these people who can’t grow GE plants are not going to go to organic—there may be some that will—but most of them are gonna go back to traditional farming, which is the worst of all scenarios in my mind.” Irwin concluded, “I always say if you could farm with organic practices using genetically modified seeds that would be the best of all worlds.”
Still, Pang insists that the lack of clinical trials is a major concern. These are the types of controlled, extensive, pivotal studies that involve humans and are required to bring new drugs to market. While Sally Irwin states that genetic modification is precise, Pang compares that precision to stacking Lego blocks. You can rebuild the same Lego shape with great precision, but throwing that toy part into an actual machine like a car involves new considerations and complications. Followers of science can identify many instances when supposedly safe practices or chemicals proved otherwise with time. Long-time residents might remember a time when trucks dusted DDT (now a “probable carcinogen”) down Maui streets and children ran to play in the fog.
The potential of transgenic contamination is another consideration that occurs when introducing GMOs to the environment. Pang cites cases where GM rice and wheat genes proliferate and were found where they should not have been. Even the HFUU, which takes a stance of supporting all farmers, took a stand on the Big Island on Bill 113, which dealt with cross pollination, after organic farmers were being affected negatively in the marketplace.
While companies like Monsanto maintain that the sophistication of current testing is sufficient, buffer zones are standard practice in all farming, and that such extensive testing of food is unheard of and uncalled for (indeed, not even dyes or preservatives are tested with this rigor before being dumped into our foods), Pang remains disturbed that of the 1700 articles cited by CAMFB, only three are human studies. Post-market studies and statements that we’ve consumed the three trillion meals since the introduction of GMOs don’t soothe the doctor either. “We are one big research experiment,” he said.
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The crowd dwindled signaling the end of the night at the 54th Maui HFUU meeting, and I began to get the feeling that I was in a biotech industry nightmare. Here were people who gathered to share their plants and the primordial knowledge of the Earth. They were people working to organize a free community seed and plant exchange with the announcement “preferably no invasive species or GMOs.” They were small family farmers working non-industrial tracts of land, with ethics that acknowledged that, yes, working the land in a regenerative and sustainable way is more labor-intensive but ultimately more rewarding than resorting to the excess use of chemicals. The mood among these farmers was largely opposed to the cultivation of GMOs. Yet, they don’t want to identify as a nightmare or enemies of anything.
Of course, there are also those in the anti-GMO crowd with questionable tactics. A recent MauiWatch GMO post featured a picture of sign waving sidewalk activists with statements like “Honk if you hate Monsanto” and “F__KING BEAT IT.” An anti-GMO rally last year with signs like “Monsanto Go to Hell.” Someone also sprayed anti-GMO slogans on Lahaina stores and trees.
The issue deserves more consideration than that. It affects everyone. People may disagree about whether the bill correctly targets the perpetrators of environmental damage, whether the fines in the bill are appropriate, or whether the risks of GMOs are worth their benefits, but in the end we are all sharing food.
I asked one Molokai resident how she felt about the potential shutdown of that island’s largest employer. “The people of Molokai are Hawaiian,” she said. “If Monsanto leaves, we gon’ survive. But if the land is gone, we gon’ starve.”
Photo: Lars Plougmann/Wikimedia Commons