The island of Kauai’i, with its jade mountains, misty valleys and turquoise waters, is a major destination for tourists wanting to soak up the sun. But the over the past year Hawai’i’s Garden Isle has also turned is into a key battleground in the fight over genetically modified crops.
In Hawai’i, a grassroots uprising against large-scale biotech agriculture is bringing together a diverse group of people, from parents, doctors, nurses and teachers who are concerned about the impact of heavy pesticide use on children and families, to small scale farmers, students, pro-surfers, and veteran social-justice and environmental activists.
Photos by Ian Umeda
The closures of the pineapple and sugarcane plantations through the 1990s left behind hundreds of jobless agricultural workers on the islands. So when the biotech seed companies began to arrive most people were happy.
In the last decade Hawai'i 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.
Hawaii has the largest number of experimental GM crops in the United States, with more field tests than any other state.
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.
Many Hawaiian residents and environmentalists are increasingly concerned about the health impacts of heavy pesticide use on the seeds farms on people living nearby.
Wendell Kabutan (front) and Klayton Kubo live right across the river from Pioneer-DuPont's GE crop fields in Waimea, Kaua'i. They are among 130 Waimea households suing Pioneer for failing to prevent fugitive dust and pesticides from blowing into the town and endangering the community’s health and area property values.
The lawsuit alleges that loose chemical-laden red dust from the biotech fields sweeps into Waimea and coats the streets and and homes in the town.
Wendell Kabutan, a retired Hawaiian Airlines ground-crew worker, says he has been having trouble breathing since the biotech companies started spraying heavy doses of pesticides.
Water quality tests on Kaua'i show that the levels of chemical contamination in the river and groundwater are too low to violate drinking water standards, but are high enough to pose a hazard to aquatic life.
Demonstrators hold up a banner with the the motto of the state of Hawaiʻi, loosely translated as: "The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness."
Ted Nakamura, a farmer who runs a three-acre organic farm on Oahu’s north shore, has found "volunteer" GE papaya trees growing on his farm. Cross pollination between organic and genetically engineered crops is a growing concern for organic farmers.
Ted Nakamura uproots what he suspects is a "volunteer" GE papaya sapling on his organic farm in O'ahu. Cross pollination between organic and genetically engineered crops is a growing concern for organic farmers.
Like many food and farming activists on the islands, Nakamura envisions a Hawai'i with more small-scale organic farms, and collectives of farmers and small businesses sharing land under long term leases and creating organic products.
Not everyone in Hawaii views the seed companies as the bad guys. Kaua'i’s Mayor Barnard Carvalho says "this kind of agriculture really feeds our families.”
Kaua'i councilmember Gary Hooser who co-introduced a bill regulating the GE seeds industry on the island. "People are getting akamai [wise]," Hooser says, "they are understanding what’s going on. It’s becoming harder for politicians and corporations to pull wool over their eyes.”
Fern Rosenstiel, co-founder of ‘Ohana O Kaua‘i, a local environmental and community rights group. Rosenstiel says that in 2013 the movement against the Biotech companies "went from a handful of people holding signs at the side of the road to literally thousands marching down the streets."
Samuel Morgan Shaw, who runs a tattoo parlor on Kaua'i's, west side, took aerial photographs of the biotech fields to show how trade winds and variable winds constantly blow dust into Waimea town.
The building that house Samuel Morgan Shaw's tattoo parlor in Kaua'i used to be Monsanto's office space. The company used to have a small operation there, but it packed up in 2010.
Many farming experts and food activists say Hawai‘i has to look beyond its colonial history to find the way forward to a food-secure state. Given the islands' year-round warm weather, fertile land and freshwater supplies, they believe it's possible for the state to transition to a more ecologically sustainable form of agriculture.
Chris Kobayashi and her husband Dimi Rivera grow produce, mainly taro, using organic practices on their 10-acre Waioli Farm. Kobayashi firmly believes Hawai'i can and must adopt more ecological farming practices. “It will be a lot of hard work, but it can be done,” she says.
Kobayshi and Rivera sell their taro to families and traditional poi (taro paste) makers on O‘ahu and the Big Island.
"We need to grow farmers too," says Chris Kobayashi. Finding enough people in Hawai'i willing to take up farming — a core problem facing the agricultural sector worldwide — is going to be a major challenge.
Jerry Konanui, a veteran Hawaiian is considered "the authority" on taro — a staple of the Native Hawaiian diet. Konanui says the biotech companies "capitalize on disenfranchisement."
The taro plant, called "kalo," in Hawaiian, is considered a sacred "elder brother" to Native Hawaiians.
Pounding taro into a fine, sticky paste to make poi, a staple of Hawaiian cuisine, requires special skills and arm power.
Broad wooden boards and specially carved pounding stones are traditionally used to make poi, or taro paste, a staple of Hawaiian cuisine.
Kulolo, a traditional taro pudding. Food and farming activists say farming-associated cottage industries that produce value-added food products could offer employment to many Hawai'i residents.