Malia Chun lives just blocks away from the beach on the western shores of the Hawaiian island of Kauai. On a sunny November morning, local activist Josh Mori drives Chun and I down the beach in his truck. Children are surfing and swimming in the waves as fisherman wait for a tug on their lines. Hawaiian beaches are known for their sparking blue waters, but Chun worries that the water lapping on the beach in her small town of Kekaha is polluted.
The nearby residential neighborhood is a “homestead” area that is reserved for people of native Hawaiian heritage and boasts one of the highest numbers of native speakers of any neighborhood in the state. Chun calls the homestead “a gem.” She runs a cultural enrichment program for native Hawaiian students at a local community college, and she moved with her two daughters, ages 7 and 11, to the homestead community six years ago. As we ride past the men and their fishing poles, Chun explains that some locals are subsistence fishermen and their families rely on what they catch. Chun says there are rumors among fisherman that the offshore reef, a crucial habitat for fish, is dying.
Mori stops the truck near two chain link fences separating the beach from sandy lots full of equipment and storage containers. Facilities operated by the international agrichemical firms Syngenta and DuPont-Pioneer run right up to the beach, where the stretch of sand occupied by the swimmers and fisherman is split by an irrigation ditch that stretches back toward the agricultural fields near Chun’s neighborhood. The biotech giants BASF and Dow also operate in the area, and Monsanto has facilities elsewhere in the state. On Kauai, the four companies take advantage of The Garden Island’s three growing seasons to develop and produce varieties of seeds that are bred or genetically engineered to resist pests and pesticides and increase yields.
Stands of genetically engineered corn are not what you would expect to see on a tropical island that once hosted sugar cane plantations and has kept its population happy for generations with coconuts, breadfruit, taro and papaya. But high demand on the mainland has made biotech corn and other seeds one of Hawaii’s top agricultural commodities. Hawaii is the world’s leading producer of corn seed, which accounts for 96 percent of the state’s $247 million biotech agriculture industry, according to the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, which represents biotech companies. Virtually every genetically engineered seed variety has spent some time in development on a Hawaiian island.
The transgenic seed varieties, also known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are at the heart of a global controversy over the future of agriculture. Hawaii has become a flashpoint for the debate and a center of anti-GMO activism. In September, thousands of people marched in Lihue, the county seat of Kauai, to protest GMO agriculture and support a local initiative to regulate pesticide use. On November 19, the Hawaii County Council passed a controversial bill banning new GMO operationson Hawaii’s big island. All new GMO crop varieties except papaya, which was genetically engineered to resist a virus in the 1990s, would be illegal under the ban if the island’s mayor gives it his approval.
But in communities on the west side of Kauai, the most immediate controversy is not over genetic engineering, but the considerable amount of chemicals sprayed on the GMO development plots. The GMO seeds produced on Kauai are not considered food items, so the agrichemical companies are allowed to use more pesticides than traditional farmers. Together, the four biotech and agrichemical companies use an estimated 18 tons of “restricted use” pesticides on their plots each year, and local doctors and activists worry about the chemicals drifting in the air and water. Some of the 22 restricted-use pesticides in use on Kauai, such as atrazine, are linked to serious health problems and are banned in European countries, and federal law requires that they be applied by or under supervision of workers with special training. Sometimes the pesticides are combined, or “stacked,” with general-use pesticides in cocktails that have never been tested officially for safety.
A seed test plot is visible from Chun’s home in the homestead neighborhood. The only thing separating the plot from her neighbors’ backyard is some bare land and a drainage ditch. “There is no testing,” says Mori, looking out toward the biotech seed plot. “We are the lab rats.”