‘Island Earth’ connects food security, corporate malpractice and the human impact

What the recent documentary teaches us about pesticides, GMOs and the future of agriculture in Hawaiʻi and around the world.

Karianne Myklebust

Cover: Still from Island Earth (2016), courtesy Cyrus Sutton

Although declining in overall economic share, tourism is still the biggest industry in the State of Hawaiʻi. While visiting, tourists will experience the friendly people, stunning natural beauty of the islands and, perhaps, even learn a little about the exciting culture and history of Hawaiʻi. What the tour guides will not tell the tourists about is the industrial agricultural business, which is the third largest industry in the Hawaiian islands today. The islands have the highest per-capita density of GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) crop development in the world. Transnational agrochemical corporations—Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, Syngenta and BASF—have made these islands their test grounds because of favorable crop-growing conditions and a year-round growing season that allows three yield cycles per year instead of one.

The Hawaiian archipelago is considered to be a paradise by most visitors, and yet many locals would contest that description as part of an unrealistic and far-fetched marketing campaign. Restricted Use Pesticides (RUPs)—powerful pest killers intended for industrial-scale agriculture only—are sprayed across multi-acre fields in Hawaiʻi, leading to well-documented instances of local residents and field workers becoming sick. Some local communities near these fields suffer from higher rates of cancer and birth defects.

Ahead of the upcoming hearing for the Kauaʻi lawsuit filed by a Kauaʻi-based community group, Ke Kauhulu o Mana, against Syngenta and the State Department of Land and Natural Resources, members of the public should consider watching the documentary Island Earth, directed by Cyrus Sutton, to familiarize themselves with the issues surrounding the use of pesticides and genetically modified crops in Hawaiʻi.


Island Earth Trailer from on Vimeo.

Sutton believes that the way in which we grow and consume our food is the biggest issue the world faces today. Production of food affects far more than our gastronomy: ocean acidification, climate change, species extinction and drought have all been tied to the way we produce food. These are especially hot topics in Hawaiʻi since the islands have a fragile and isolated ecosystem. Island Earth was created with the intent of educating the public about how the use of pesticides and genetically modified organisms affects this ecosystem, and the planet. With beautiful photography and expert storytelling, the documentary argues that we must learn from the mistakes of previous generations that put all stock in the power of pesticides to solve the world’s food problems. The power of change, therefore, lies with the new generation.

The director of Island Earth regards the industrialized agricultural industry to constitute a substantial and multifaceted problem and hopes to spark interest among youth to get involved and, one day, solve the problem. Island Earth puts a substantial focus on the younger generation as a result. But the film also appeals to anyone who cares about health, the environment and the openness of local government.

Hawaiʻi’s three growing seasons per year has made the islands a strategic goldmine for the agrochemical industry. And while there is a large volume of genetically modified crops grown in the archipelago, the biodiversity of these crops is severely limited as they are not grown for food, but for testing the effectiveness of pesticides and GMO seeds that can withstand those chemicals. Hawaiʻi’s isolation from the mainland already makes its ecosystem fragile, and GMO monocrops have the potential to increase the susceptibility to catastrophic disease events. Because these monocrops are dependent on pesticides to survive, they also are susceptible to mutations in pests brought about by natural selection as pests become resistant to ever more harmful chemicals. GMO seeds have a documented ability to accidentally spread to the wider environment (GMO pollen drift), potentially upsetting the fragile ecosystem here and reducing biodiversity, which is critical for species to survive in an ecosystem.

This is besides the fact that pesticides that are sprayed on the crops are deadly poisons that can kill non-GMO plants, insects, fungi, rodents and other species necessary to maintain a healthy ecosystem. Pesticides have the potential to kill off endangered plants or animals that live close to the farms. Pesticides also affect human health, potentially causing disease and momentary sickness.

The speakers in Island Earth are experts from a wide range of fields, making the documentary a well-rounded, diverse, accurate film completed with extreme due diligence. Audiences view the issue through the lens of a parent, an aspiring scientist, a local farmer/activist, a former industry insider and a policy expert. In the film, we meet Malia Chun. She became a part of the anti-GMO movement when she discovered her kids had over 36 different pesticides in their body. Her family lives right next door to a GMO crop testing field, which is saturated in pesticides. Since the GMO fields were built outside her town on the southwest side of Kauaʻi, more people have been diagnosed with cancer. The use of pesticides is also suspected to cause diseases like asthma, autism, reproductive dysfunction, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and Parkinson’s. Through Malia Chun’s point of view, the audience experiences how the industrialized agricultural problem is affecting the everyday person.

We also come to know Cliff Kapono. He recently graduated with a Masters in Biotechnology; in addition, he is finishing his Ph.D. in Chemistry. His goal is to be a positive force in the local Hawaiian agricultural business. He wants to honor ancestral knowledge, but wants to apply modern science in the agricultural industry. Through his point of view, we are able to see how the younger generation can make a positive influence on the future.

Dustin Barca is also featured in the documentary. Barca was dissatisfied with the local government since employees had ties with the GMO corporations. He decided to take matters into his own hands and chose to run for mayor. Although he is a somewhat controversial figure, Barca’s campaign made people more aware of the ties between the industry and the local government. By showcasing people who deal with the industrialized agricultural problems on an everyday basis, the documentary becomes more relatable to those living in the Hawaiian islands.

GMO crops were first designed and created during World War II and implemented shortly after in an effort to feed more people. The post-war food shortage was, at least temporarily, addressed through a strategy that involved initiatives led by Norman Borlaug to develop high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, expand irrigation infrastructure, modernize management and genetically modify crops to be resistant to most diseases of that era. Borlaug, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, is credited with saving over a billion people from starvation and is now known as the “Father of the Green Revolution.” This is how the GMO movement started. It allowed communities to develop and businesses to become rich.

When DNA was discovered in the 1900s, it became possible to directly alter the DNA within foods. In Hawaiʻi, the growing of GMO foods has become increasingly common, which has also dramatically increased the use of pesticides to keep the pests away from the fields. In Hawaiʻi, companies are permitted to use RUPs, most of which are banned in other developed countries. Various Hawaiʻi counties, as well as some state legislators, have tried to pass bills that would ban the future development of GMO crops or make it illegal to spray pesticides near schools, hospitals and large bodies of water. These bills have been repeatedly shot down through lawsuits and lobbying pressure exerted by the powerful agrochemical corporations. Courts have ruled that only the federal and state government, rather than the counties, have the power to regulate the practices of these multi-billion dollar companies.

GMO crops and their integrated reliance on pesticides raise a lot of ethical questions for people living in Hawaiʻi, and around the world. Island Earth raises these questions so that people will become aware of them and examine the connections between harm done to public health, democracy and our precious, irreplaceable environment and the industrial, global-capitalist practices of these corporations. Ignorance and a lack of information are the biggest problems we face in overcoming these sorts of complicated problems today. Sutton helps us understand this by addressing important issues in his documentary and urging people to get involved themselves. He therefore helps people to live a more examined life.

Other factors outside the scope of the documentary should be considered as well. The movement to regulate these companies focuses almost exclusively on the practice of growing crops. We ought to address other facets as well, such as the fact that the U.S could feed 800 million more people tomorrow with the grain that our livestock currently consumes—livestock that also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change to a higher degree even than automobile usage. Curtailing our reliance on the animal agricultural industry would free up thousands of acres of fertile land to grow crops on, providing far more space for crops to feed people.

Even so, Island Earth will resonate with audiences. The documentary makes strong arguments that are well backed up by experts and testimony from everyday people. Most importantly, the documentary provides audiences with a greater understanding of the use of GMO crops and pesticides here in Hawaiʻi, and will motivate young people to be the generation that creates positive change for our society.

Karianne Myklebust is from Norway and is a freshman at Hawaii Pacific University where she is studying management in the College of Business.