GMOs are tearing a tropical paradise apart

As a suspected cancer cluster invades Hawaii, residents are torn between GMO jobs and the health of the people

Published September 4, 2013 4:13PM (EDT)

    (Lia Barrett)
(Lia Barrett)

If you’ve read about GMOs before, you may have heard that 88 percent of corn and 94 percent of soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified, that the FDA has approved genetically modified (GM) crops for consumption, and there has never been a universally accepted study that has found GM food to be unsafe. What’s more, here in Hawaii, proponents argue that GM seed saved the big island’s papaya growers, and has the potential to bolster Florida’s citrus industry.

Opponents, though, call it Frankenfood and mention that the long-term effect of eating it has never been studied. They emphasize dubious industry ties between the FDA and that notorious GMO boogeyman, Monsanto. But Monsanto doesn’t operate on Kauai. DuPont Pioneer, Dow, Syngenta and BASF do, and all of them are heavily invested in GM agriculture globally.

On Kapule Highway, in front of the Lihue airport, Kauai’s battle lines are drawn. On one side, native Hawaiians and second generation Filipinos chant in unison -- dressed in sky blue “We Are Kauai Ag” T-shirts, and muddy work boots they wear in the cornfields, where they grow GM seed for four of the world’s largest chemical manufacturers. The rarely heard cheer, “G-M-O, G-M-O,” ruffles another pack of activists across the road, dressed in board shorts, flip-flops and fire-engine red “Pass the Bill” tees. They support Kauai County resolution 2491, an attempt to cut the local seed industry off at the knees, which threatens the jobs of their rivals. Most of them are haole, or white, and live nowhere near the farms they hope to shut down.

Inside the overflowing Kauai Veterans Center, tension is high. A parade of residents and a smattering of experts testify before Gary Hooser, who introduced 2491, and his six colleagues on the county council, blessing or cursing the bill in equal measure.

Klayton Kubo, 47, a house painter and single father, has much more in common with the blue shirts than the reds. He gnashes his teeth in the rear of the hall, as he suffers through hours of repetitive testimony, waiting for his three minutes at the mic. What worries him is not the crop, but the pesticides used to grow it.

According to state pesticide records, 18 tons of 22 Restricted Use Pesticides (RUPs – pesticides that require special permits) are sprayed each year on Kauai. The American Cancer Society and American Academy of Pediatrics have linked 15 of those to cancer in recent studies. Factor in the general use variety, and 63 different pesticide compounds are sprayed in the island’s cornfields annually, and nobody knows exactly how that cocktail may impact the land and surrounding communities. To Kubo, and many others gathered here, that’s precisely the problem. After all, if the seed cannot be grown safely, what does it matter if the corn is safe to eat?

Evidence Kubo clenches in his right fist hints at the delivery system that may be carrying harmful toxins from the fields into his living room. Inside a crumpled Ziploc bag is a rag coated with fine red soil. Dust he wiped from his windowsill and that he insists comes from DuPont Pioneer’s experimental fields, which loom above his home. Dust, he and his neighbors have been contending with for over 13 years. Dust that according to anecdotal evidence may be turning the enclave known as Lower Waimea into a sick ward, where asthma, severe skin rashes and nose bleeds, allergies and migraines are rampant, and where area residents claim there are 37 cancer cases in a neighborhood of just 800 people; an alarming statistic that, if it holds up under scrutiny, is over 10 times the cancer rate statewide.

* * *

Hawaii’s Garden Isle, Kauai, is home to 68,000 who live in small towns sprinkled along a highway stretching 70 miles from one end to the other. And it’s all kinds of beautiful. Velvety jade mountains rise to form misty valleys, which sprout spontaneous rainbows. The crystalline sea ranges from tropical turquoise to purplish blue. The roadless Na Pali coast, one of the most spectacular sights on earth, is a wall of rippled cliffs that guards secluded coves, and bridges the lush north shore with the arid Westside.

That’s where you’ll find Waimea, best known for Waimea Canyon, a gaping red rock jigsaw, ribboned with waterfalls, that plunges 3,000 feet from its rim to the Waimea River, which snakes slowly to the sea. On his maiden voyage to the Hawaiian Islands, Captain Cook’s first stop was the Waimea River mouth; a point equidistant from DuPont Pioneer headquarters and Kubo’s doorstep.

Waimea has always been a farming town, home mostly to families, like Kubo’s, who arrived from Japan four and five generations ago to work the cane. Their community was devastated when the sugar economy crashed in the 1990s. Jobs were scarce. Lush plantations became parched brown fields. Enter: big chemical.

Although seed corn was planted on Kauai as far back as the late 1960s, it wasn’t until 1998 that DuPont Pioneer, Syngenta, BASF and Dow took turns transforming Kauai’s defunct sugar plantations into field laboratories and parent seed operations to bring GM corn, soy and sunflower seed to market. Waimea residents were thankful for new employers, and greeted their arrival with equal parts optimism and gratitude.

And Kauai was not the only Hawaiian island to welcome them. Hawaii’s Department of Agriculture also recruited big chemical, including Monsanto, to Oahu, Maui and Molokai, either leasing them state land or enabling privately held lease agreements. This alliance has turned Hawaii into one of three subtropical cultivation zones that supply the global seed market.

Although small plots of drought- and saline-tolerant seed are being developed here, the primary cash crop on Kauai is a corn seed known as Round Up Ready, an herbicide-resistant plant that allows growers to blast an entire cornfield with Round Up, or Glysophate, to kill weeds but not their crop. It’s a nod toward mechanization, a quickening trend critical to the profitability of one of America’s largest exports – corn. But the pervasive use of Glysophate has sprouted super weeds in America’s corn belt. In response, chemical companies are developing new herbicides (such as Dow’s Enlist, which combines Glysophate with a chemical called 2,4 D), along with GM seeds that are resistant to those herbicides. These experimental, herbicide-resistant seeds are being grown, and sprayed with a cocktail of chemicals, in Kauai.

According to the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association (HCIA), together the companies account for $260 million of the state’s GDP, while claiming indirect responsibility for an additional $280 million, via employee-driven commerce, annually. They employ 2,000 workers, maintain valuable irrigation infrastructure, and make use of land that would otherwise remain abandoned. Over 40 percent of those jobs and dollars land on Kauai – by far the biggest of the island seed economies, yet most of the cash fills the coffers of Kauai’s wealthiest landowners, including the Robinsons – the family made famous in the film "The Descendants." This pioneering sugar family recently leased a substantial parcel for 50 years to Dow – which will unveil its sparkling new $49 million Kauai headquarters this fall, and back in 1998 they leased a large tract to DuPont Pioneer, on a plateau across the river and less than 200 feet above Lower Waimea. That’s when the trouble began.

Hawaii’s climate accommodates three growing seasons, which enables the seed companies to get new products into the marketplace in one-third of the time. It also means three times as much tilling and increasingly fine soil. For the past 13 years, whenever the trade winds blow, Lower Waimea has been inundated with red dust.

In early 2000, Kubo painted his house. It looked brand-new for a few days, but less than a week later it was stained red. After that, whenever the wind picked up, he’d watch plumes rise on the plateau, and by morning that dust would be coating Lower Waimea homes inside and out. His windows were pocked, screens and appliances ruined. He became increasingly agitated and complained to DuPont Pioneer headquarters.

“I was going to them persistently,” he said. “’You need a windbreak,’ I told them. ‘We’re taking the smash down here.’” They’d promise to water the fields in an effort to control the dust, and perhaps to placate Kubo, who can be intimidating, but they never did, and the dust kept coming.

Kubo began canvassing the neighborhood. He found that he wasn’t alone in his frustration, and that many of his neighbors were having issues with dust. He gathered more than 100 signatures in a week, and turned his petition into the local board of health, along with rags coated with red soil, to no avail. For all his efforts, Kubo didn’t yet know what these companies were growing, what type of chemicals they were spraying, or that DuPont Pioneer was operating without a conservation plan.

In 1995, to curb the impact of real estate development on farmland, Kauai’s Soil & Water Conservation District began mandating anyone who planned to grade or grub raw land, to file a conservation plan. A five-member board reviews and approves the plans. Local landowners elect three of the board members, but the more land you own the more votes you get. The other two are appointed by the state Department of Land & Natural Resources, from a list of appointees nominated by the elected members. It’s an insider’s game, a rubber stamp waiting to happen. Yet, DuPont Pioneer didn’t even bother to file a conservation plan until 2002, when theirs was approved with a signature from the board’s chairman at the time, Peter Tausend, who has a Ph.D. in botany and a day job at the DuPont Pioneer research facility.

Back then DuPont Pioneer was farming just 160 acres, and its plan called for trees to be planted in a series of windbreaks around the perimeter. Those windbreaks weren’t planted until 2011. A full year after the company began grubbing and plowing an additional 1,000 acres on the same plateau, again with no conservation plan in place. It wasn’t until February 2011 that it filed a plan for its new acreage. (DuPont Pioneer has ignored repeated requests by to present or explain its conservation plan filings.)

Meanwhile, nothing much changed until two chemical oversprays closed Waimea Canyon Middle School and sent dozens of kids to the hospital, first in 2006 and again in 2008. Wendy Tanneri was a PE Teacher at Waimea Canyon Middle School in January 2008. She was leading her class through a game of capture the flag when a chemical odor drifted over the playground. Students started getting dizzy and nauseous. “Nobody was feeling right,” she said, “and by the time we got back to the locker rooms everyone was feeling a whole lot worse.” Dozens of kids were sent to the health room with several vomiting profusely. Over the two incidents more than 20 children were sent to the E.R.

Syngenta was widely suspected of both overspray incidents, yet it insists it wasn't spraying that morning in 2008, and claims instead that it was clearing a nearby field of stinkweed. The state Department of Agriculture backed the company up in a report that residents here dismiss. “They said it was mass hysteria,” Tanneri complained. “But I know stinkweed. I ride my horse through it every day, and it didn’t smell like stinkweed.”

Matt Snowden, 41, another teacher, decided to get educated. Along with a colleague, he went to a Pesticide Action Network conference in Berkeley and learned more about the chemicals being used around Waimea Canyon Middle School. When he returned, Snowden set up passive airborne detection systems hoping to determine what exactly was drifting on campus, and found traces of Metholochlor, Chlorpyrifos, and Atrazine. He calls them “third-world chemicals,” and points out that the EPA has banned Chlorpyrifos from residential use, and Atrazine is completely banned in Europe. “They’re spraying endocrine disruptors,” he said, “which are very volatile with kids at a vulnerable age. We’re talking about kids between sixth and eighth grade, going through puberty, and getting chronic exposure.”

Around this time the Lower Waimea community was no longer concerned just about dust, which is likely also tainted by over 50 years of sugarcane pesticide residue, and they began to organize in earnest. In 2011 they retained Gerard Jervis, 64, a pioneering mass tort attorney in Honolulu, who recruited Kyle Smith, 37, an up-and-coming litigator from Las Vegas to join him. Before long Smith had moved his family to Honolulu to work on the case full-time. It was through their combined efforts that the community finally learned which chemicals were being sprayed, and that pesticides are applied two out of every three days. The attorneys didn’t just share information with their clients. They held town hall meetings and invited members of the community to attend.

“Usually these lawsuits are very secretive,” said Jervis, “but we want the community to know what’s going on.”

After initial negotiations with DuPont went nowhere, 130 households filed suit. While Smith and Jervis continue to investigate claims of disease and illness linked to dust and pesticides, this first suit is solely about company negligence, plummeting property values and property damage. They are up against a team of high-priced DuPont lawyers, and the case is scheduled for trial in federal court next summer.

* * *

DuPont Pioneer won’t comment on the lawsuit, but a letter it sent to the community hints at its defense. It invokes Hawaii’s Right to Farm Act, which says that anybody who lives near an agricultural operation can expect a certain amount of nuisance, such as noise and dust, and was written to prevent “frivolous lawsuits.” Right to Farm also factors into the industry’s stance against county measure 2491, and their stance is unified.

“It’s overreaching,” says Mark Phillipson, lead, corporate affairs at Syngenta and president of the HCIA. “There are already laws in place and fully adequate measures to insure safety. I know the position of the other side is that state and federal agencies are failing. Our position is that they are not failing, and what is the point of adding a county level to a regulatory framework that already exists?”

There’s no doubt that Councilman Hooser, 59, was swinging for the fences when he introduced 2491. A former Waikiki pedi-cab driver turned Kauai real estate developer, he has been in Hawaii politics for 20 years, and once served as majority leader in the state Assembly. After a failed lieutenant governor run, Hooser doubled back to where his career began and campaigned for Kauai County Council in 2012. He ran sixth out of ninth, which was just good enough to nab one of seven seats.

During his campaign he heard a lot about GMOs from voters. After the election, Hooser met with company representatives. “I asked what they’re spraying. They looked me in the eye and said they’re using all the same stuff all the farmers here are using, and that’s not true,” he said. “They mislead, they parse, they lie.”

Hooser collaborated with progressive legal nonprofits Earth Justice, Hawaiian Justice Legal Counsel, and Center for Food Safety to write the bill, which includes a right to know provision that demands 72-hour notice, chemical name and location, each time a pesticide is sprayed. It also declares a moratorium on open-air experimental GM crops, and creates 500-foot buffer zones around public roads, schools, hospitals and waterways, which sounds reasonable, but threatens the companies’ future on Kauai. “If a 500-foot buffer zone is implemented as written,” said Phillipson, “there are very few places we can plant.”

Phillipson claims Hooser never bothered to visit the farms, though he has been invited, and representatives of Kauai Coffee, a tourist darling, are also worried. They testified that they would lose rights to half their fields, or nearly 1,500 acres, if the bill goes through. Still, area nurses and pediatricians have rallied around the bill, and there is precedent for localities adding to existing state and federal regulatory requirements. In recent years, 300 different counties and municipalities have passed anti-fracking regulations in 20 states.

“I think the bill is very important,” said Jervis. “For once the community would be able to push back a little. These guys have been operating with impunity.”

“Litigation cannot give Waimea back the last 10 years,” added Smith, “but it can unite a community to stand up for itself. 2491 is about local people deciding what is right for their own community. Waimea and other communities have a right to know when poisons are used by their neighbors.”

But passing a bill is one thing, implementing it is another. Marjorie Bronster, a former Hawaii attorney general, has been retained by DuPont Pioneer to fight the bill in court should it pass. “If we win,” said Bronster, “the county would be liable for legal fees and damages.” That has at least half the council reluctant to vote in favor.

After the marathon 13-hour session on July 31, the council met in chambers on Aug. 5 where experts on both sides were questioned. Again the session lasted deep into the night before the bill was deferred until Sept. 9.

When 2491 was introduced, optimism rippled through Lower Waimea for the first time in years. By Aug. 6, that momentum had stalled, and Kubo and his neighbors were in a familiar position, purgatory.

One of the main sticking points of 2491 is the mandate for an environmental impact study (EIS) to determine how GM crops and pesticides are affecting the land and local communities. After a mass die-off of over 50,000 sea urchins in a bay near Dow’s facility, residents became concerned about runoff and ocean pollution. The EIS could solve that mystery, and it could help the Lower Waimea community clarify what it may face in terms of long-term health.

Such a study could also reveal that there really is nothing to fear, just as the industry claims. After the second overspray at Waimea Canyon Middle School, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, in conjunction with Kauai County, commissioned a study to determine which, if any, pesticides are present on campus. Investigators only measured for six of the 22 RUPs, and three of those were found in trace amounts well below EPA safety limits. If you forgive the lack of a truly rigorous inquiry, those results seem to bolster industry arguments that pesticides are not being used in amounts harmful to public health. Which begs the question, why are the companies against the public’s right to know?

In the days leading up to public testimony, the chemical companies flooded local media with ads, and flew in experts who spoke at town hall sessions and testified before the council. One of their experts, Dr. Steve Savage, a former DuPont employee and professor at Colorado State University, presented a graph that compares per-acre RUP use on Kauai to 17 states – including the entire corn belt.

At first glance, it appears that Kauai uses less than half the pesticides of the heaviest user, Kentucky. But read the fine print and you’ll discover that while other state measurements represent annual usage, tiny Kauai’s is calculated for a single growing season. And we know that there are at least two, and often three growing seasons in Hawaii, which means the amount of RUPs sprayed per acre on this small island dwarfs that of all 17 states during their biggest ever pesticide usage years. That is misinformation at its most egregious, but may explain why the companies are so dead set against disclosure.

As for the suspected cancer cluster, whispers from local surgeons, radiologists and oncologists who have been concerned about a possible elevated cancer rate on Kauai for years finally reached the state Department of Health in June who asked the Hawaii Tumor Registry for a statistical analysis. The results can be found in a trim, one-page report that suggests there is no cancer spike on Kauai.

Dr. Brenda Hernandez authored the study and though her analysis was only broken down to census district level, she believes a spike in Lower Waimea should have shown up. Yet she didn’t rule out a cancer cluster either.

“Anecdotal evidence can be relevant,” said Hernandez, “because that’s the front line of disease occurrence.” According to Hernandez, the only way to determine if there is a cancer cluster in Lower Waimea is to conduct a focused epidemiological study, which would cost upward of $250,000, and could be part of an EIS were 2491 to pass. “If I lived there,” she added, “it would concern me.”

By Adam Skolnick

MORE FROM Adam Skolnick

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cancer Corn Genetically Modified Food Gmos Hawaii Monsanto Soy