Cover: Still from Island Earth (2016), courtesy Cyrus Sutton
To many, the island state of Hawaiʻi is nothing more than a vacation destination, but the Hawaiian islands are also home to an estimated 1.45 million people. The island of Kauaʻi, the oldest and most biologically diverse of the main islands in the archipelago, houses an estimated 67 thousand people, and is home to a large percentage of Hawaiʻi’s agricultural industry. While the economic benefits of the agricultural industry have had some positive effects on the island, the environmental impacts of industrial farming, crop testing and soil denitrification that are tied to this industry affect a far larger population than those directly involved in its continuation.
The documentary Island Earth, by Cyrus Sutton, dives deep into the ways that unsustainable, corporate agricultural practices affect communities, both large and small. The consequences of GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) and open air pesticide-testing, as well as the willful, corporate misconduct of the multinational agrochemical corporations that have based their operations in Hawaiʻi, have led many of thepeople of Kauaʻi—and across the state—to speak out and take action to correct the ongoing environmental damage while creating a more sustainable and resilient tomorrow. By creating informed discussion and inspiring action, fighting for political representation and proactive vigilance, and innovating new solutions, Kauaʻi represents the vanguard in facing the complicated agricultural challenges of the future head-on.
Before globalization linked the markets and economic opportunities of the world together, the Hawaiian islands were once entire self-sustaining worlds unto themselves. Dependent on a limited habitat, which nonetheless produced bountiful resources, Hawaiʻi was able to support its people for hundreds of years; a people who understood the cyclical tendencies of agriculture. However, upon the annexation of Hawaiʻi and its incorporation with the continental U.S., western agricultural technologies, policies and forms of commerce were introduced that supplanted the sustainable ahupuaʻa system that had governed Hawaiian agriculture for generations, tying it intrinsically to the well-being and stewardship of the land. The result was that ecological vulnerability increased.
In 1994, commercial agriculture in Hawaiʻi took a major step forward with the development of a GMO strain of papaya, engineered to be more resistant to the devastating Papaya ringspot virus that nearly wiped out Hawaiʻi’s papaya industry in the early 1990s, and to produce more abundant crop yields (the product debuted for consumption in 1998). In fact, among the major exports of Hawaiʻi today, 85 percent of the state’s papayas are now genetically modified.
In the two decades since the “Rainbow Papaya” was created, Hawaiʻi has become the center for GMO field trials due to the ideal climate and preferable 52-week growing season. While this has meant a significant boon to the five corporations that test GMOs and their coordinated pesticides here, it has also caused the state to welcome jobs that come with these industrial agricultural operations and with it, the hazards to health and the environment.
As Island Earth illustrates, a substantial segment of the population of Kauaʻi, and of the rest of the neighbor islands where industrial agriculture is most prevalent, are searching for ways to regulate, negotiate and change the way GMOs are used and tested. The film encourages the discussion of the place of genetically engineered crops in Hawaiʻi and serves to educate those who are exposed to the effects of pesticides, as well as policy-makers and the general public. By returning to more sustainable and community-sensitive practices and by moderating GMO production and the pesticide testing with which that production is linked, the film suggests that sustainable agriculture in Hawaiʻi may once again thrive.
Recently, the county council in Kauaʻi stood up against corporations that were abusing farmlands and voted to ban the growth of GMO taro due to the mixed pollination of GMO crops with unmodified crops. In 2013, the Kauaʻi County Council passed the GMO disclosure bill with by a 6–1 vote. The mayor vetoed the bill, and the council overrode his veto, turning the bill into law. But the county ordinance was ultimately overturned in the appeals court after the agrochemical company lawyers successfully argued that the regulation of the industry and its products could only come at the state or federal level.
The growing controversy surrounding GMO production and pesticide application has led to new arguments for and against commercial use in Hawaiʻi. In order to fully understand the issue, we must take into account all the ways the agrochemical industry has and will continue to influence Hawaiian agriculture. The work of commercial seed and pesticide companies is a case of pure exploitation of Hawaiʻi’s weather and ecology. In traditional Hawaiian agriculture, the land was chief and supported large populations through the cultivation of a multitude of native crops. The director of the Hawaiian Center for Food Safety, Ashley Lukens Ph.D. remarks, “When farms were isolated and diverse, they relied on cycles of codependency.” GMO testing crops in Hawaiʻi such as soybeans, corn, coffee and fruits are based on largely monocrop systems that disregard the benefits of traditional farming and disrupt natural pollination. The denitrification of the soil when crop rotation is ignored can lead to crop yields that lack substantial nutrients.
Compared to contemporary methods, traditional agriculture also presents fewer health risks. Researchers, farmers and other members of the anti-GMO movement have found evidence that the use of pesticides pollutes air quality, degrades food and negatively impacts public health. It appears that people who have been exposed to pesticides through open-air testing and spraying of Restricted Use Pesticides (RUPs) are more likely to suffer from diseases and cancer, and their children are more likely to be afflicted with autism, ADHD and other developmental irregularities.
These issues are also expressed in the relationship between environmental and individual health, which many believe to be interconnected. The issue presents special challenges for hopeful Hawaiian researchers like Cliff Kapono. Kapono, along with other GMO pioneers, have found ways to identify molecules in crops that respond to GMOs and determine what types of resistance can occur. Kapono believes that the use of moderated GMO crops is one way to help regenerate Hawaiian agriculture and make the Hawaiian islands more self-sustainable. The experience with the Rainbow Papaya lends credence to Kapono’s argument that GMOs can exist without upsetting the environment. It is possible to combine the power of genetic engineering with the ideals of sustainability to revolutionize the agricultural industry in Hawaiʻi and create sustenance for its communities and continued fertility for its lands. Still, Kapono is challenged by the conflict between his aspirations as a student and community resistance to GMOs that is fueled by reckless corporate behavior.
While it is one thing to acknowledge the action that must be taken to preserve the ecosystem and food security of Kauaʻi and the rest of the state, it is another, far more complex task to make those changes. The battle to limit industrial pesticide use begins by representing the interests of the people. It is wrong for companies to withhold information from entire communities relating to the products they are testing when many of their products are toxic. It is crucial that environmental groups, local government and individuals living in Hawaiʻi act. Legal action has been taken on Kauaʻi to ensure that Hawaiʻi’s farmlands maintain health and environmental standards, and that GMO testing is controlled. But even if this legal action succeeds, the ensuing regulations must be implemented on a larger scale. If the federal government will not act to support these communities, the state government must.
As Hawai‘i SEED, a charitable, educational and scientific activism group suggests, “We can demand that our institutions be responsive and responsible to our communities and land, rebalancing our farming systems in the sustainable ways of the future.”
Researchers like Cliff Kapono must continue to promote innovative compromises between seed companies and those their work affects to respect and replenish farmlands. We should all examine how we are affected by the activity of the agrochemical corporations that operate just beyond our backyards. What we know changes our perception and behavior. It is time to lead by example. We, the people of Hawaiʻi, must educate ourselves, our peers and our children to understand the issues that surround us.
Ultimately, we must counter the destructive behavior of corporations in order to promote, establish and curate a more environmentally and culturally sound agricultural system. In order to become better stewards of the land, we must recognize the natural systems in place and our kuleana to work in harmony with nature. Even the smallest acts have the power to make meaningful change in the fight to reshape the world’s food systems, in Hawaiʻi and beyond.
Adeline Crosthwait is a freshman at Hawaii Pacific University pursuing a major in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) with a double minor in French and International Studies. Before moving to Hawaiʻi for school, Adeline was an active member of her community in Buels Gore, Vermont where she first discovered her love of languages, environmentalism, writing and music. She hopes to use her voice to promote cultural acceptance and harmonious global living.