Common sense regulations necessary to create a sustainable agricultural industry in Hawaii

Is it​ ​possible​ ​to combine​ ​the​ ​power of genetic engineering with the ideals​ ​of​ ​sustainability ​to​ ​revolutionize ​the​ ​agricultural industry​ ​in Hawaiʻi? Only if public policy puts people ahead of corporate profits.

Adeline Crosthwait

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 the​​people​ ​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 ​system​s ​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.