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Bought and paid for?

Monsanto, GMOs and the importance of independent research at the University of Hawaiʻi.

Hector Valenzuela is a professor and crop specialist at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR). He has graduate degrees in crop production from the University of Florida and Washington State University. A supporter of small family farms and of organic and ecological-based farming systems, we asked Dr. Valenzuela to talk with us about CTAHR, Monsanto and the importance of keeping research within the University of Hawaiʻi (UH) free from outside corporate and political influence.

Will Caron (WC): Over the past 15 years, system wide, Monsanto has donated quite a bit of money to UH. What were some of the larger amounts and what were they used for?

Hector Valenzuela (HV): The big monies are the ones that have shown up in the media. The half-a-million dollars for scholarships; the smaller grant for $20,000 which was to help conduct educational programs for kids K-12. The other, smaller monies were system-wide, to the Community Colleges to fund the construction of bio-tech labs, or something else for instructional purposes.

WC: When Monsanto donates money like that, is it always for a specific purpose, or does some of it go to a general research fund for UH?

HV: It’s up to the donor. In this case it’s for specific projects, like for scholarships. Monsanto would look at what is their overall goal and then definite purposes.

WC: How would you compare the relationship UHM had with Monsanto and other bio-tech companies under Virginia Hinshaw’s administration versus Tom Apple’s?

HV: I’m not that much of an insider in the system, but I haven’t seen any changes in terms of what’s going on. My only interaction with Apple was [Fall of 2012] when we had a panel on the land grants of the University. That’s when he had a chance to speak about it; the need to be an independent, third party. But he was new at the University and I imagine he had to say good things.

WC: At that panel Apple used JABSOM taking funding from Tobacco companies as a comparison to Monsanto’s donations to CTAHR as equally inappropriate. How accurate is that comparison?

HV: In terms of degrees it’s a little different, because with Tobacco there’s so many people that die each year from it and so on. But, in terms of the casualties, I think it’s the same kind of comparison.

WC: What do you mean by casualties?

HV: From products made by either Tobacco Companies or the Chemical Industry. Agent Orange—it was used as a chemical weapon to destroy rice paddies because they knew people were going to starve, or would have to move to the cities. They knew exposure would cause harmful effects for several generations.

The production of PCBs [Polychlorinated biphenyls such as Aroclor; manufactured by Monsanto from 1930 to 1977] continued even though these companies had good information that down the road it would have a lot of environmental and health consequences.

So to deal with a company that has a track record of having produced products in the past that were extremely dangerous, and to do it without asking questions about it—I think it would be similar to the medical school receiving money from Tobacco companies.

WC: Was Agent Orange developed at UH?

HV: I think we did do development research for it, in terms of finding out what were the best application rates. I don’t really know if we were involved in other ways during the early stages.

WC: Why is it important for CTAHR to be independent, and what about UH research in general?

HV: Because at the State level, and even globally, we’re going through a lot of changes. That means that as a society we have to make certain decisions about the future of our food, the future of agriculture and the environment—all kinds of different issues. As Apple indicated, we should be an independent agency that can provide insightful information about what we should do. But if we have substantial amounts of monies that color our perspectives, that might impact our final recommendations.

So right now, we’re talking about agriculture. There’s all kinds of land available in the State and there’s a dynamic discussion going on at all levels: What should we be doing with that land? Should we be feeding ourselves or should we follow the same pattern as before? That would be where we use the land for whatever because we believe we have enough money to buy our food from out-of-State, which is still a lot of people’s perspective.

When we talk about the future of land use in Hawaiʻi, it’s difficult to be an independent party when one of the major players in that discussion has a big role in the message of the college [CTAHR]. When a Monsanto guy is on our board of advisers, when they’re giving us all this money—it’s hard for us to say that we can provide and independent perspective.

WC: In terms of the people’s trust in what the University is saying as a research institution as well?

HV: Right, right. It goes in all kinds of situations, like what kind of professors are we hiring. When you hire a professor, you’re making a 40-year decision. It’s a big investment; you’ve got to give him a lab, you’ve got to give all these supplies and so on. So the type of professors you select are based on your vision about where are we going.

If the Monsantos of the world have a big influence on what we do, we’re going to end up selecting faculty that are amenable to what they do. And that’s what happened during the 90s. In the 90s, almost every position that we hired was position/bio-tech: entomology/bio-tech, plants/bio-tech. So to me, that killed our program for a period of 20 years.

WC: What about now? You said CTAHR is more open to independent research?

HV: It depends. A lot of Universities around the country are suddenly discovering sustainability. You see it in their pamphlets, on their websites; but it’s difficult to tell whether it’s for real and the paradigms of the University actually changed and they’re saying we should look into sustainability, or whether it’s just P.R. because the public is asking for it. So it’s hard to tell.

On a personal level, one big difference that I’ve found is that suddenly there’s more support for academic freedom. I had to struggle for about ten years from supervisors telling me not to ask questions about GMOs. Now I’ve been given a little more leeway; more room to breathe. So that’s a good thing.

WC: What have those supervisors gone on to do?

HV: They’re still around. Some are retiring, some are like old cold warriors. But that’s a good development, I think.

WC: Monsanto has a record of developing chemicals later found to be dangerous, like Agent Orange. Is there another parallel to the Tobacco Industry, where they did know it was dangerous even while they were marketing it as safe? Or did they simply fail to do enough research and only determined these products to be dangerous later?

HV: Internal documents are showing that they did, in fact, know that these products were harmful, and often times it was in alliance with the government. The government and the companies knew that these products were harmful and they did not share this information with the public, sometimes for a period of decades.

So it is like the Tobacco companies, where they first create a big public relations campaign. Secondly they begin funding a lot of research; they start funding what I call “skeptics.” Say with Tobacco, they started funding millions of dollars to professors to find other causes or diseases that could be causing the same symptoms. So when they go to the courts they can say that complications didn’t come from smoking, but from drinking or exposure to caffeine or whatever the story may be.

WC: What does that say about Monsanto’s and other companies’ claims that GE crops and GMOs are perfectly safe?

HV: It says that if there’s no evidence, no data for them to show, then they have little credibility and the public has the right to be skeptical. The public has the right to see the data—this data they’re producing shouldn’t be confidential. We need access to this information so that we can independently make an assessment. If you conducted an experiment, show me. I want to see the experiment, all the methodology, to make sure it was legitimate. If not, we have reason to be skeptical.

WC: So they’re research is confidential and they haven’t shared it with the public?

HV: From the start they said these GE crops are substantially equivalent to non-GE crops, so that they wouldn’t even need to do safety studies. They just skipped the entire process of evaluation and this too was in close alliance with the government. That was all under Ronald Reagan who got elected on promises of getting rid of regulations and make it easier for companies and so on.

WC: What do you think about Monsanto’s seed-patenting policy and about what it does to farmers and smaller agribusinesses that become dependent on them through that process?

HV: From a large perspective, it’s almost like a continuation of colonialism. Colonialism created a system of economic dependency. GMO patenting creates a system of dependency as well. Farmers have to purchase a lot of inputs just to survive.

And in terms of the intellectual property argument, these products were not really created by Monsanto. These products were created by indigenous populations. Corn wasn’t invented by Monsanto. Even the proteins that they inserted weren’t created by Monsanto—they just selected them from nature. So they’re using information from nature, patenting that information and forming a monopoly on these products.

WC: How does that affect the world food supply and food security, especially here in Hawaiʻi where we import so much of our food?

HV: The status to date, in terms of the food supply, is that as a global society, we are able to produce a sufficient amount of food to feed everybody. However, because of the economic and social systems, there’s high levels of inequality, so that food is not well-distributed. So people that don’t have the capital, the money to purchase food—millions of people go hungry. In the U.S. it’s like 1 in 5 kids; same kind of problem.

The kind of technology that is being promoted through the patenting of crops increases the concentration of power in the food supply. Based on what has happened in the past, this pattern is likely to further increase this inequality rather than even it out.

GMOs are an extension of the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution was a package of technologies. So to succeed as a farmer you needed to buy improved seed, and with that seed you needed to buy machinery to plant the fields, large amounts of monoculture, inputs and chemicals.

What we observed in the 60s and 70s from the Green Revolution is that the small guys couldn’t afford it so they went out of business. So the big guys got bigger because they were more efficient, they were smart. So the big guys started with 100 acres and today we have 20 or 30,000 acre farms. This pattern would be exacerbated by GMOs.

WC: Was the government involved in that because they want to concentrate food here in America?

HV: No, it’s more of an alliance between government and corporations. So the government develops policies that encourage concentration of the food supply, but I don’t think there was a direct agenda.

WC: Monsanto’s patenting policy has come under scrutiny by the U.S. Justice Department because it does seem to create a monopoly. Are these anti-trust inquiries warranted?

HV: I’m not sure what has happened since the Justice Department’s initial inquiries, but I do think it is warranted, yes.

WC: People have all sorts of fears about GMOs and GE crops: That they’ll screw up our DNA; that the chemicals used to produce them are toxic to humans, the eco-system and the water supply; that the open-air experiments are harmful to the environment; even that GE crops will overrun and kill natural plants and indigenous plants. If the public is to have a truly informed view of this issue, which fears should they consider legitimate, and which fears have been over-hyped or blown out of proportion?

HV: All of the concerns are real. All of the issues that you raised just now are real. There’s been a lot of research that has raised red flags with regards to all of those issues. Where people jump the fence is when they make blanket statements about what sort of harm is already being done.

But that is a rational response to expect from people who are not familiar with the issues. I mean, we’re all just on Facebook and what not, and sometimes the headlines say there is such and such damage being done. So it’s easy for people to spread those blanket statements that might not necessarily be true. I forgive the “civilians,” or normal people, for making wild statements. I give less credit when corporations make blanket statements about safety and so on, because they have all the resources, they are the scientists, they should know better than making a statement that, at face value, seems to be intended to purposely mislead or misguide the public.

What I tell critics of this technology is that there’s already enough things wrong with it without making blanket statements like GMOs are killing millions of people or that kind of stuff.

WC: What can be done to better educate the public about what is actually harmful about GMOs versus those sort of blanket statements that actually hurt the public’s interests by promoting misinformation?

HV: The problem is that, so far, the public has been kept in the dark. So that raises a lot of suspicions. Why are we in the dark about this? Why hasn’t there been a discussion?

So we’ve been consuming this technology for 15 years and we should have had this discussion 30 years ago—at least five years before they ever got into the food supply. We really have to have an open debate.

But again, even within the UH system it’s been difficult. I was told not to ask questions, I was told not to research certain issues, I was told not to interact with members of the public that had questions about it. Even within the State, the two sides did not have an equal stake. The industry had an inside scoop with the dean while critics were being ostracized and being told to to stay out of the discussion.

WC: So even this interview might not have happened several years ago?

HV: Maybe not. I mean it was happening, but I was getting myself into trouble because of it.

WC: Who was the dean that had that inside connection with Monsanto and wouldn’t let you talk to the public about this stuff?

HV: That was Andy Hashimoto, the previous dean.

WC: How should the State and government agencies balance legitimate health and safety concerns with concerns that say GE crops are the future of agriculture and that we literally cannot afford to do away with this industry?

HV: Basically there was very little oversight initially, and the scientists from the government that raised questions from the start were pushed aside. Government agencies have a responsibility to stand up and ask what’s going on. They need to protect the public at the state and county level.

Legislators and agencies are just going to have to drink the Kool-Aid and actually evaluate all the facts based on what we know today. So far they’ve been buying the story that GMOs are going to save the world; that there’s nothing wrong with GMOs. All of those statements are based on nothing; on air. So they have to start with a clean slate and evaluate the technology based on its merits as well as risks.

WC: Do you see a Union of Concerned Scientists-type organization ever being allowed to evaluate Monsanto’s research?

HV: Well there have been a lot of independent studies coming out, actually, in terms of risks from GMOs from the chemicals and pesticides being used on them. But they’re scattered and right now mostly from outside the United States; from Europe and other countries.

The Department of Health, which is kind of like our first line of defense in the State, has been on a similar band-wagon as UH was when I wasn’t allowed to have questions. People within the DOH that have asked questions have similarly been ostracized and told not to talk about that issue as an employee of the DOH, and that’s totally unacceptable. Professionals within the DOH should absolutely be allowed to enter the discussion.

WC: Anything else that people should know about this?

HV: One thing I bring up all the time is the issue of climate change. Countries and regions all over the world are saying this is not something that’s down the road, it’s been here for the past 20 years. So what are we going to do about it in terms of designing our agriculture? In Hawaiʻi we should be asking this too. When we talk about the future of Ag, we should be thinking about what kind of systems will allow us to recover from climate change and survive.

The data that’s available so far says that agricological farm systems, based on small-scale farming, are the systems that are most resilient. When you have large scale monocultures they’re very simplified and very easy to wipe out. And once you wipe them out it’s real hard to bring them back. Small scale, highly diversified systems—you have a drought and maybe 50 percent die, but 50 percent make it and you’re able to continue. So they’re very resilient.

WC: So the state should actually be subsidizing small-scale agribusinesses rather than these seed-giants?

HV: Right. So the central message for policy makers is that small farms are real farms. The thinking right now is that small farms don’t even count—they’re not even on policy-makers’ radars.

Our plantation owners, large landowners and politicians; they still have the thinking that plantations are what we need to be the savior of the State. It was a failure when plantations were here before, and a continuation of that policy would still fail. It wouldn’t provide us the food that we need. Instead we need small-scale farms in what are called “green corridors” around all our communities.

WC: It seems like no one wants to get into farming anymore unless it’s going to be large-scale, money-making operations. How do you encourage people to get into the business of small-scale farming?

HV: Yeah, we have tended to mischaracterize the concept of agriculture, and we have to change that. Because basically what we’re talking about is owning your own business; a small-scale enterprise. But you would be doing it in a way that is compatible with your lifestyle, with the environment. You wouldn’t be using any toxins so your family will be clean while producing a high-value product. You have your farm and you take your product to a market within a few miles. Right now it’s thought of more like a slave-labor; hard work for not much pay.

Right now a lot of agriculture is being subsidized, but it’s all going to big-Ag and GMOs. It’s like a $20 or $30 billion subsidy each year on the national level. It should be recognized that small-scale farmers are protecting the environment. They’re keeping our areas green so they are the ones that should be getting subsidized by our government.