Hawaii’s GMO and hybrid seed industry is going through another merger-linked transition, with DowDuPont shuttering operations on Molokai and expanding them on Kauai.
Molokai workers will be guaranteed jobs on that island through the second-quarter 2018, with some ultimately relocating to Kauai or the mainland. The Kauai workforce will expand, as will the company’s footprint.
On Kauai, some $12 million in construction is planned to upgrade administrative facilities and build new shade structures in Kekaha. The company’s agriculture division research and development operations will be consolidated at Waimea.
“New shade houses will allow for a large portion of research operations to be conducted indoors, providing environmental benefits and reducing the need for additional lands,” the company’s news release stated.
Anti-GMO activists have complained that seed company operations are taking up too much agricultural land, even as thousands of acres of farmland remain fallow throughout Hawaii. Moving some operations indoors should also pre-empt activists’ undocumented claims that pesticide drift from field applications is harming people and the environment.
All parent seed operations will be consolidated at the facility in Waialua, Oahu. Field operations at Kunia, Oahu, will end in 2018, with the facilities there scheduled to close in 2019.
The Agriculture Division of DowDuPont was formed by the merger of Dow Chemical and DuPont on Sept. 1. Earlier this year, Syngenta sold its Hawaii operations to Hartung Brothers, a Wisconsin-based family-owned business. Last year, Beck Hybrids, another family-owned company, bought the former BASF seed research facilities on Kauai.
Monsanto, meanwhile, still has operations on Molokai and Maui.
The 50-year-old seed industry is the most valuable sector of Hawaii’s dwindling agricultural economy. The Islands are favored for parent seed production because they provide a year-round growing climate.
Though it’s too early to tell whether it’s imploding — or merely suffering growing pains — the $50 billion American organic industry is going through some serious soul-searching.
While some organic pioneers are bemoaning what they perceive as the ongoing degradation of a brand founded in an ideological movement, others see this as a time to critically reassess what organic really means, and how that ancient model of agriculture fits into the bigger picture of feeding and fueling 7.6 billion people in the 21st century.
The industry has long grappled with internal philosophical fissures. But these recently turned into a very public split when the US Department of Agriculture ruled that hydroponic and aquaponic farms, which grow crops in nutrient solutions, and frequently indoors, could continue to display the economically valuable organic seal.
Organic pioneers were outraged, claiming the Nov. 1 decision undermined the founding principles of a movement dedicated to soil health and regeneration. “They did incalculable damage to the seal,” lamented organic tomato farmer Dave Chapman in an interview with the Washington Post. “It’s just going to take them a while to realize it.”
Some of the reaction was grounded in the organic movement’s general disdain for large agribusiness firms, such as Driscoll’s, a conventional and organic grower that has used hydroponics to capture a significant share of the fresh berry market. A similar uproar occurred earlier this year around claims that certain producers, most notably “industrial” dairies, weren’t meeting the spirit —and perhaps not even the legal requirements —of the organic brand.
Though big business doesn’t dovetail with the bucolic, small farm image that the organic brand trades on, it’s part and parcel of the actual workings of the industry. Indeed, many organic food companies have already sold out to multinational corporations like General Mills, Post, Smuckers, Coca Cola, Miller-Coors, Nestle, Perdue Farms, Kellog’s and Hain-Celestial.
And some hydroponic growers, such as those represented by the Recirculating Farms Coalition, are in fact small, eco-friendly farmers who staunchly defended their practices. Following the ruling, Marianne Cufone, the Coalition’s executive director, issued a statement that read, in part:
“By siding with current science and recognizing that existing law purposely leaves the door open for various farming methods, the NOSB is sending a critical message that sustainability and innovation are valuable in U.S. agriculture.”
Still, as National Public Radio pointed out, the fight really seems to be grounded in market share, since hydroponic operations are already dominating organic tomato, pepper, lettuce, cucumber and berry production. That economic reality may explain why the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) accepted hydroponics and aquaculture, but rejected aeroponics, a related practice that has yet to attract the same consumer base.
And despite Cufone’s optimistic assessment, the NOSB appears to have ignored sustainability, innovation and science in its treatment of biotechnology, which is poised to deliver crops that can survive on minimal water and produce high yields without the use of chemical fertilizers. These applications and others now being developed by public sector researchers certainly appear compatible with the environmental and populist visions of the organic movement.
Nevertheless, the Board last year reaffirmed its complete rejection of gene editing and synthetic biology with the dubious claim that “every organic stakeholder is clear that genetic engineering is an imminent threat to organic integrity.”
However, at least two organic farmers, Raoul Adamchak and Amy Hepworth, see value in GE. They’re at the forefront of an effort to make organic farming more inclusive, which could mean growing crops genetically engineered to ward off insects without the use of pesticide applications — synthetic or organic.
“The organic movement was successful in changing the way the agricultural industry operates,” Hepworth, a seventh-generation family farmer who grows 400 acres of certified organic vegetables in New York, told the Alliance for Science. “But the time has come to release ourselves from the tyranny of the label — taking its valuable lessons and evolving beyond organic to create the safest, most ecologically, economically, and socially-just agricultural system possible. Advances in biotechnology are a natural fit to meet the demand of the population for sustainably grown food.”
Adamchak, who teaches organic farming at the University of California-Davis, has proposed a new certification program for “sustainable agriculture” that would include GE crops. “I think there can be improvements made to organic agriculture that are science-based,” he said. “It’s a time when we need all the tools possible.”
Dan Blaustein-Rejto, The Breakthrough Institute’s agricultural analyst, is taking it one step further. He’s begun arguing that organic production is a luxury we can’t afford to indulge in this era of increasingly erratic weather patterns and a burgeoning population:
Rather than focusing on organic production, we ought to promote any production method that minimizes land use and farming’s other environmental impacts while providing enough healthy food for everyone.
Biotech isn’t the only area where the organic industry has found itself on the wrong side of science. The Organic Consumers Association helps to fund the anti-GMO movement, which associates with anti-vaccine activists and health quacks. This year, two documentaries — Food Evolution and Science Moms — brought the anti-GMO movement’s cognitive dissonance and scientific silliness to the screen.
Meanwhile, researchers have begun challenging the industry’s claims of environmental superiority, noting that organic growers do use pesticides and typically engage in more tillage than conventional farmers, a practice that contributes to erosion, topsoil loss and carbon emissions. Organic farmers also rely on animal fertilizers, and the livestock industry has been taking a beating for its contribution to climate change.
Other studies have questioned whether organic agriculture can produce sufficient quantities of food to meet global demand — without requiring everyone to go vegetarian and/or expand farming into wild areas.
Nutritionists fret that pesticide fears stoked by the organic industry are causing people to shy away from eating conventionally grown fresh fruits and veggies, even though samples consistently show they contain only trace residues. Others object to the way that organic marketing has contributed to food elitism and romanticized — some would say impractical — notions about farming.
And though the industry has been wildly successful at marketing, it’s now facing challenges in that arena — again from within its own ranks. The Detox Project recently launched its “glyphosate residue-free” verification and labeling project with the ominous warning that “even organic isn’t enough” to ensure that a product is free of the widely used— and heavily demonized — herbicide. In the opportunistic world of marketing, it seems someone is always ready to up the ante.
This new public scrutiny underscores a widening rift within the industry itself over what organic really means today, some 70 years after the movement first began to take hold. Although some organic pioneers are threatening to pack up their marbles and go home, other farmers and researchers are questioning whether the original practices and philosophy can — or should — endure intact in the face of climate change and science-based agricultural innovations.
The US Environmental Protection Agency has awarded a federal grant that supports the anti-GMO movement in Hawaii.
Deldi Reyes, environmental justice program manager for the EPA’s Region 9 Enforcement Area, maintained the grant was “more about pesticides in general” than GMOs. However, the grant project specifically targets the companies that grow GMO and hybrid seeds on the island of Kauai.
And though Reyes claimed “this project focused more on the potential impacts versus taking a pro or anti GMO stand,” it was awarded to anti-GMO/anti-pesticide activist Phoebe Eng.
Eng intends to partner with Po’ai Wai Ola, an organization that recently brought an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging a state land lease to a Kauai seed company and has contested water use by seed companies.
Eng plans to conduct a public outreach campaign to “provide opportunities for west Kauai residents to learn about and protect against impacts to water quality and public health due to toxic pesticide use by large agricultural companies working in the local area,” according to the grant summary.
Reyes downplayed concerns about the potential for bias and conflict of interest in the outreach campaign. But she acknowledged the EPA will not vet any of the materials disseminated through the grant, even though Eng has no formal training in pesticides and has taken strident anti-GMO and anti-pesticide stances.
When asked whether EPA was interested in ensuring the public gets accurate, unbiased materials, Reyes replied, “Yes, it is important to us. We don’t want people out there spreading lies or slandering businesses.”
However, Eng already has engaged in such practices. In addition to describing genetic engineering as an “irresponsible technology,” she wrote a piece where she claimed:
The pesticide and herbicide practices of GMO tenants damage our soil over the long term, reducing it to a lifeless growing medium. Open air GMO chemical spraying is affecting the health of West Side children and families, resulting in increased health care costs that are borne by taxpayers, insurance companies, and private citizens.”
However, not a single study conducted in Hawaii has documented any soil harm or health hazards associated with the cultivation of GMO seed crops or their related pesticide use. Indeed, testing conducted by both state agencies and anti-GMO groups found only trace amounts of pesticides — well below EPA thresholds — in the air and water near GMO fields, indicating that pesticides are not migrating off-site in any significant amounts, and certainly not at levels that could cause harm.
Eng also made numerous false assertions in her grant application, including this spurious claim circulated by an anti-GMO group, the Center for Food Safety:
Because the west Kauai fields are R&D test fields where pesticide tolerances are being studied to create new patented seed and parent seed strains, the level of pesticide application far exceeds that of conventionally grown, commercial genetically engineered crops, for example on the US mainland. Herbicide resistance is a frequently tested trait in GE crop field tests in Hawaii. This means that plants genetically engineered in Hawaii, by and large, are engineered to resist ever greater applications of pesticides.
The residential communities of these towns therefore bear an extremely large toxic load as a consequence of pesticide spraying.
In reality, herbicide and pesticide testing does not occur in Hawaii. Herbicide-resistant crops are grown in the Islands primarily for breeding purposes. In other words, making new combinations of traits and selecting among the progeny. When an herbicide tolerance trait has been developed, it is not necessary to “test” it with repeated high rates of herbicide.
Eng’s application also falsely claimed that west Kauai residents had a higher rate of cancer, though a state study showed that Hawaii residents in general have lower cancer rates than the rest of the US. The only elevated rates on Kauai were found on the north shore, far from the seed fields, where the district’s largely Caucasian population had high incidences of the skin cancer melanoma.
Surely the EPA’s Region 9, which is charged with regulating and enforcing pesticide use in Hawaii, should be aware of these facts. But Eng was given the grant despite these falsehoods and her history as an anti — even though Reyes claimed that “we certainly want them to do it [the project] in an objective and science-based way.”
Furthermore, the grant allows Eng to use federal money to identify others sympathetic to her cause, and proselytize west Kauai residents, including seed company workers, “to consider job choices that more closely align with their values.”
Or in other words, her values, as articulated in materials she’s written about the need to “change the long-term direction of West Side agriculture … so it can be a world-class destination and model for sustainable regional development.” Sure sounds like she’s aiming to get rid of the seed companies.
Perhaps most disturbing, the grant authorizes Eng to draft “a Community Collaboration Action Plan which relies on the continuation of our work together in the years to come.”
In short, the EPA is giving Eng funds to establish herself as the voice and decision-maker of the community — even though she wrote the grant on behalf of a newly formed group with no identified members, and no nonprofit status. What’s more, Eng provided no proof that she had any community partnerships, and she did not disclose or identify any additional sources of funding.
When questioned, Reyes said only that the application process didn’t require her to show any proof of collaboration. Reyes then added, “The people out there [west Kauai] deserve a voice.”
Yes, I replied. They do.
But shouldn’t it be their own voice, I argued, rather than the voice of an activist transplant who makes patronizing references to the “plantation mentality” of west Kauai residents and their inability to comprehend complex issues like pesticide laws?
Eng’s grant application included such dismissive contentions as “Many residents do not read well…are not proficient in English… and lack the ability to communicate their views in ways the policymakers are accustomed to.” However, Eng failed to note that two of the current Kauai County Councilmembers were raised in that very community, and so should have no problem communicating with its inhabitants.
At the end of our conversation, I told Reyes that many in the Hawaii agricultural sector believe that EPA’s Region 9 is in cahoots with anti-GMO/anti-pesticide activists.
“That’s not me, that’s not Region 9,” Reyes replied.
Perhaps not, I said. But when you give out a grant like this, it sure reinforces that perception. And on a small island like Kauai, perception tends to be more important than reality.
Update 12-4-17: An EPA official read my piece, contacted me and offered assurance that the official will personally scrutinize both the materials developed and activities carried out under this grant. “When the EPA gives its stamp of approval [to pesticides] that means a lot and it’s not something to be taken lightly,” the official said. “To have somebody come around the backdoor and say, ‘they’re not safe,’ is not fair to the public or to the companies that use these chemicals. It sends a double message and that’s what we’re trying to avoid.”
Traveling through Colorado mountain towns — places like Durango, Silverton, Telluride, Crested Butte — acutely aware of how man’s fascination with extracting riches from the earth, and perhaps making his own fortune in the process, has dominated and shaped this region. What are the opportunities now for sudden windfall? Tech start-up? Winning the lottery?
In Crested Butte, workers from Slovenia and other Eastern European nations descended 8,000 feet into the mines to dig out coal and load it onto carts hauled by mule train to the surface. I reflect upon the intense suffering this operation inflicted upon man and beast, both deprived of the sun, any real rights, though the humans, at least, had a choice. Still, these immigrants went on to make the town, become the community, populate it with their offspring. It’s a level of civic participation mostly denied to those who now work the slaughterhouses, meat packing plants, orchards and fields of the West and Midwest — essential jobs that are nonetheless marginalized by the very same people who refuse to perform them.
Today these towns depend not on silver and gems painstakingly extracted from the hard rock mines, or coal, or supplying the miners, but tourism, a different way of exploiting the natural resources, one that is not as evidently ravaging as digging shafts into the earth, creating piles of tailings, releasing toxic chemicals into clear, gurgling streams, but one that is impactful nonetheless.
In summer, the visitors are hiking, rafting, riding ATVs and dirt bikes, hunting, fishing, mountain biking, rock climbing, and in winter, they are skiing, snow-shoeing, driving snowmobiles. And always they are shopping, eating, drinking, showering, burning fuel, consuming resources that are largely imported from other places.
Scruffy miners, their hands covered with uranium and arsenic residue, have been replaced by scruffy recreators, their hands clutching cell phones or pawing through racks of expensive raingear, cheap tee-shirt souvenirs.
Now, as then, those who wend their way to these high-elevation outposts are looking for something that the Rockies, with their splendid vastness, seem able to deliver.
“Find yourself in Telluride” promised one poster illustrated with a photo of two young women in yoga gear, holding hands as they performed an asana in a lush, wildflower-studded mountain meadow.
As in Hawaii, some who come to visit end up putting down roots, or at least buying property. Condos, lavish second homes — $9 million for a six-bedroom spread in trendy Telluride — vacation rentals, hunting lodges, hotels and RV parks, scourge of the west, dot the slopes, line the roads and streams. Within the throb of tourism the locals, or townies, carry on their lives, bussing tables, collecting the garbage, ringing up sales, steaming milk for lattes.
As in Hawaii, some of the locals have been priced out, or squeezed into marginal housing, or forced to double or triple up, as evidenced by the six-to-eight battered, mud-splattered old Jeeps and Subarus parked haphazardly in small yards. Some stay because it’s home, others because they want easy access to ski slopes and trout streams. Still others are passing through, spending the summer, or a year, in the Rockies. Casual work seems easy to find, with many shops and restaurants advertising immediate employment, signing bonuses. No doubt some of the tourists, the young travelers, will be tempted.
Unlike Hawaii, people seem glad for the tourism, grateful for the business, welcoming. Perhaps it’s because the physical space isn’t limited, like it is on an island, perhaps because concessions are made to locals, like the way Telluride gives permits to residents that allow them to park in the center median downtown. In Crested Butte, “townie” bikes are standard issue, and they help to relieve the traffic congestion.
Still, I know what it’s like to live in a place where the tourists are continually flowing in and out, irrevocably changing the character and feel of a place, even as they drive the economic engine.
It’s not unlike mining, with its booms and busts, the surges of seekers who swelled a town, then deserted it for greener pastures, greater opportunities. No economic venture, no fad, lasts forever.
What will follow tourism, which has become the lifeblood of so many towns and cities, all across the globe?
It’s been terribly amusing to watch the anti-GMO activists sputter over the release of a credible new documentary, “Food Evolution,” which holds that science is on the side of agricultural biotechnology.
From Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan to US Right to Know and Center for Food Safety, the outcry has been the same: “unfair, unbalanced, deceptive, skewed science, industry propaganda.”
Yes, those were some of the phrases delivered without a touch of irony by folks who either routinely produce and peddle an anti-GMO narrative that is itself unfair, unbalanced and deceptive, or have never said a peep about the reams of organic industry-funded propaganda and skewed science produced by the anti movement.
Which got me wondering once again why the anti-GMO movement is so utterly devoid of introspection, and so quick to engage in the psychological defense mechanism known as projection, “in which unwanted feelings are displaced onto another person, where they then appear as a threat from the external world.”
With a soft tone, respectful to opponents but insistent on the data, “Food Evolution” posits an inconvenient truth for organic boosters to swallow: In a world desperate for safe, sustainable food, G.M.O.s may well be a force for good.
Of course, antis quickly denounced the review as a “puff piece” because smearing and tainting is one of their favorite tactics. Nestle, after claiming she was quoted “out of context” (though not inaccurately) when she admitted GMOs are safe, engaged in it herself in her bitter denouncement of the film on her Food Politics blog:
I can’t help but think Monsanto or the Biotechnology Innovation Organization must have given IFT [Institute for Food Technologists] a grant for this purpose, but IFT takes complete responsibility for commissioning the film (if you have any information about this, please let me know). I view it as a slick piece of GMO industry propaganda.
Gosh, wouldn’t you think an esteemed professor at New York University would actually gather some facts before making such a bold accusation? Especially since she’s wrong: neither Monsanto nor BIO kicked in any dough.
This allegation led to demands by the antis that the filmmakers disclose all their funding sources. Again, this was hugely ironic and hilarious, considering the anti movement likes to keep its own funding and expenses shrounded in secrecy. Disclosure and transparency are always for others, and never for them.
Just as setting the record straight is always for others, and never for them. After seeing Nestle demand the removal of her 10-second clip from “Food Evolution,” Kevin Folta, chair of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida, wrote about his own experience with Nestle after she reprinted a scandalous story about him that was later retracted, but never corrected on her blog:
“…it is important to point out amazing hypocrisy. Someone that claims to have been wronged is the exact same person that celebrated the harm of others, and promoted false information to hurt someone professionally and personally, and refused to discuss it or make corrections when kindly approached about it.”
Nestle went on to block comments on her critical review of “Food Evolution” saying the “trolls had defeated her” — not that she’d erred and should rightly be chastised and corrected.
Stacy Malkin of US Right to Know (funded largely by the Organic Consumers Association) fumed that fans of Neil deGrasse Tyson “deserve better than the twisted tale dished out by Food Evolution, the new documentary film about genetically modified foods (GMOs) that is driving its promotion on the coattails of Tyson’s narration and kicking up controversy for its biased approach.”
Uh, excuse me, but aren’t the antis the ones who are kicking up controversy by claiming the film is biased? And I don’t remember Stacy crying about how fans of Pierce “OO7” Brosnan deserve far more than the outright lies of “Poisoning Paradise,” the anti-GMO fear flick produced by Brosnan’s wife and a Kauai personal injury attorney that is cruising the coattails (and coffers) of his celebrity.
Nestle, Pollan, Malkin and others sniff that “Food Evolution” fails because it addresses only the issue of safety.
Well, safety is the issue that has driven much of the anti-GMO narrative in the West, and it’s the issue that is continuing to drive the anti messaging in Africa and Asia, where men are told GMOs will make them impotent or sterile.
It’s also an issue that has resonated with many esteemed scientists, including the National Academy of Sciences and a roster of Nobel laureates, all of whom agree that GMO crops are safe for human and animal consumption.
Still, there’s plenty more to talk about in the GMO debate, and with the Q&A discussions that have followed many screenings, those behind “Food Evolution” have shown they’re willing to engage.
What will it take for the anti forces to come to the table, rather than lodge spurious cyber attacks — especially when their complaints and accusations apply so aptly to themselves?
After years of watching those horridly inaccurate and inflammatory anti-GMO films, and despairing that any other side —much less a credible one — would ever make it to the big screen, along comes “Food Evolution.”
Ah! A breath of fresh air! And a powerful “anti-dote.”
Though much has been said about the ignorance of Americans, it is a little hard to accept that 48 percent don’t know how chocolate milk is made — though the ingredients are right there on the label — and 7 percent actually believe it comes from brown cows.
That revelation — in a survey commissioned by the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy— prompted the Washington Post and Consumerist to dig up some other distressing info gaps. According to various studies, 20 percent believe hamburger is made from the meat of pigs, and many school children do not know that onions and lettuce are plants, or that cheese is made from milk.
The answer, of course, is more education, especially for children. But just who is providing that education, and what are they teaching? In Hawaii, as we’ve seen with school garden-promoting groups like Malama Kauai, the Kohala Center and the Kokua Hawaii Foundation, it’s all about organics.
Food Corps, which is quoted in the Washington Post article, also lists a preponderance of organic and “natural” foods partners, such as UNFI (United Natural Foods Inc.), Bob’s Red Mill, Newman’s Own, Honest Tea and Annie’s, along with Whole Kids (which is supported heavily by Whole Foods), C&S Wholesale Grocers, Rock the Lunch Box and others promoting and selling organic foods. It’s co-founder, Cecily Upton, was previously youth programs manager for Slow Food USA, which also has a school garden program.
Yes, there are other groups, like National Agriculture in the Classroom Organization and the American Farm Bureau Foundation, that are providing schools with curriculum about nutrition, farm technology and agricultural economics.
But what is the dominant message that is being conveyed in this new battle for the hearts and minds of a new generation of eaters? In Hawaii, and I daresay elsewhere, it’s that organic is great and anything else isn’t.
The Post quotes Upton as saying:
Knowledge is power. Without it, we can’t make informed decisions.
Indeed. But are school kids being given a very narrow knowledge base, one that favors organic methods? Are they being left with the false impression that growing a school garden is on par with producing food for the 98 percent of the population that does not engage in farming? Or that the same principles and practices that apply to 500 square feet can be successfully employed on 5,000 acres? Are they being brainwashed to believe that big farms and biotechnology are bad “industrial” practices that should be feared and shunned?
Yes, kids need to learn more about where food comes from. It’s essential to teach them about the importance of fresh fruits and veggies in a healthy diet. School gardens are a wonderful way to get kids outside, and engaged. And no, you can’t have little kids applying pesticides, running machinery or doing some of the things that are part and parcel of a commercial agricultural operation.
But if our primary way of teaching kids about food and agriculture is a school garden — especially an organic garden — then we’re training yet another generation of poorly educated adults. Except many of them will believe they actually do know something about farming because they once helped in a school garden.
And as we’re increasingly seeing, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, especially when it’s gleaned in the echo chamber of social media. That’s why we have so many people who are either poorly educated about agriculture and/or prone to romantic, idealized ideas about food production weighing in heavily on policies that have tremendous implications for farmers, food processors, hunger and nutrition.
It’s time to get real with kids. So while they’re out there digging in the school garden, share a few facts about how the modern food system is providing more people with more safe food than ever before. Help them understand concepts like economy of scale, the value of technology in agriculture, the tremendous challenge of meeting food safety standards. Clue them in on the complexities and costs of food storage, production and transport, the damage inflicted by weather, pests and diseases. Throw in a few tidbits about price supports, commodity trading, international competition, supply and demand.
Most importantly, teach them some appreciation for the people who devote their lives to agriculture, and deserve to profit from their labors, just like everyone else.
Then maybe we’ll have consumers who truly understand that milk begins as grass and/or feed consumed by cows in a commercial dairy and goes through a process of homogenization, processing, bottling, shipment and storage that allows it to eventually show up in a supermarket in a dazzling array of forms: chocolate, strawberry, whole, skim, 2%, 1%, organic, pasture-raised, omega-rich.
Perhaps then they’ll be grateful that they have so much abundance, and so many choices, at such a relatively low cost.