Lihue, Hawaii - Famous the world over as a tropical vacation spot, the Hawaiian Islands are less well-known as ground zero in the debate over genetically modified organisms (GMO), the open-air testing of pesticide-resistant crops and the ethics of patenting genetically engineered (GE) plant life.
Hawaii is home to one of the world’s greatest concentrations of GMO research fields by five of the largest biotechnology and chemical companies: Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer and BASF.
These transnational corporations prefer Hawaii for growing and testing GE crops because of its abundant sunshine, rainfall and year-round growing climate. GMO opponents say the companies also enjoy Hawaii’s isolation, largely removed from the public eye.
Yet these companies, which have been in Hawaii for decades, are now facing increasing opposition from residents concerned about GMOs, the health and environmental impacts of pesticides and what they see as a lack of oversight and transparency.
When the Hawaii state legislature convened this January, on its schedule were a dozen bills seeking to regulate, limit or ban the sale and import of GMOs. This month, two of the bills were approved by committee, an important step towards becoming law.
Hawaii's House Bill 174 calls for labelling imported genetically engineered fresh produce. If passed, Hawaii would be the first US state to require labelling of GMO foods.
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Unlike Japan, China, Russia, the European Union and dozens of other countries, the US does not require GMO foods to be labelled.
Opponents of labelling include Alicia Maluafiti, executive director of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, a trade association representing biotech companies. She says the burden of labelling should be on foods that do not include GMOs.
Scott McFarland, government and public affairs leader with Dow AgroSciences in Hawaii, says his company "actually has no position on food labelling”. He characterises Dow’s work in Hawaii as “parent seed expansion”, developing commercial seeds to be exported outside the US.
Hawaii's fight over GMO foods has garnered worldwide attention. Last month internationally renowned environmentalist and philosopher Dr Vandana Shiva travelled from New Delhi to Hawaii to speak to anti-GMO activists, community groups and lawmakers who are increasingly concerned about the role of GMOs in the US' 50th state. "I think your island is truth-speaking to the world that GMOs are an extension of pesticides, not a substitute or alternative to it,” she told an audience on the island of Kauai.
Shiva is best known for her opposition to GMO crops, globalisation, the privatisation of land and water and what she describes as a "war against the earth.”
The 1993 recipient of the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the "Alternative Nobel Prize") and founder of Navdanya, a programme dedicated to protecting traditional crops through seed banking, Shiva was invited to the islands by Hawaii SEED, a coalition of grassroots groups promoting alternatives to GE farming.
"[Hawaii] has become like a nerve centre for the expansion of destruction,” Shiva said. "GMOs are not a safe alternative to poisons, they are pushed by a poison industry to increase the sale of both the poisons and simultaneously monopolise the seed."
Evoking the 1984 Bhopal, India disaster when a chemical leak from a Union Carbide plant (now a subsidiary of Dow Chemical) killed and injured tens of thousands, Shiva - who was trained as a physicist - embarked on a connect-the-dots tour of how she says yesterday's war chemicals manufacturers reinvented themselves as the agrochemical industry, before mutating into the biotech industry.
"War and agriculture came together when the chemicals that were produced for warfare lost their market - and the industry organised itself to sell those chemicals as agrochemicals,” Shiva said. As gene splicing techniques advanced, she said corporations saw GE crops as a means to claim creative and inventive rights, patent seeds and collect royalties.
Joining Shiva were community activist Walter Ritte and public interest lawyer Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety in Washington.
In the 1970s Ritte was at the centre of direct action against the US military which, at the time, was using the Hawaiian island of Kahoolawe as a bombing range. Eventually the movement was successful in ending weapons testing on the island. Today Ritte focuses his activism on stopping GMO farming.
Kimbrell told the audience that genetic engineering at its essence violates nature's most fundamental codes. "They're treating animals and seed as though they're machines and using machine value on the life forms. That's why we call it genetic engineering.”
Citing a Union of Concerned Scientists 2009 report entitled Failure to Yield, Kimbrell spoke of what he called "GMO myths” and said that, at a minimum, GMOs should be labelled.
"It's not a matter of if we're going to have labelling, it's when. It would be great if Hawaii did it first,” Kimbrell said.
A 'war on earth'
"My roots, my ancestors - everything is about relationships. I feel this relationship [with GMOs] is not beneficial to our taro or our people."
- Jerry Konanui - taro farmer
Travelling from Hawaii's Big Island for Shiva's visit, Jerry Konanui, an eighth-generation taro farmer, rejects the notion that genetic engineering, monocropping and the use of chemical pesticides are in Hawaii's best interests. In Hawaii, taro is both a traditional staple crop and also revered as the first ancestor of the Hawaiian people. Currently the genetic engineering of Hawaiian varieties of taro is banned.
"People say 'he's just a farmer, what does he know?' But how can people claim to 'save taro' when they don't even know the names of taro varieties or their genealogies?” asks Konanui. "My roots, my ancestors - everything is about relationships. I feel this relationship [with GMOs] is not beneficial to our taro or our people.”
But Mark Phillipson, the lead for corporate affairs for Syngenta in Hawaii, says Konanui and others have nothing to worry about: “The products have been out there for 17 years now," said Phillipson. "There have been 3 trillion meals served that have had genetic engineered components in them, and not one reported incident, acutely or long-term, associated with GM causing an allergen or toxicity issue.” Phillipson went on to say that GMO food products are thoroughly tested before approval by the US Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration or the Environmental Protection Agency.
And Maluafiti, in response to Shiva's visit, wrote: "GMO isn't killing people in India. Starvation is.”
The right to know
One of the organisers of Shiva's visit, Hawaii SEED president and co-founder Jeri Di Pietro, says there is growing unease across Hawaii about open-air testing of GE crops and associated chemicals. She points to cases of children in schools near test fields who have gone home sick with headaches, nausea and other symptoms she and others suspect may be the result of agrochemicals.
Similarly, Kauai County Council member Gary Hooser says many in the community are worried about GMO testing and the effects of pesticides and other agrochemicals.
But he has other concerns, too. "It's not just about whether eating GMO corn is good or bad for you,” says Hooser. "It's about issues of morality in terms of the impacts of these crops and practices on farmers in India, the globalisation and control of the world's food supply by corporations - and whether or not the patenting of life forms is moral.”
As a Hawaii state senator from 2002 to 2010, Hooser introduced numerous bills seeking to increase regulations on experimental development of GMOs in Hawaii. At a minimum, he says, GMO foods should be labelled.
He says that the passage of legislation reducing the effects of herbicides and pesticides, further regulating GMOs, or banning open-air testing by a small community like Kauai would send a message far beyond Hawaii.
"I think Kauai's action, and Hawaii as a state, could empower other communities.”