Musings, etc.

US consumers view gene editing in a favorable light

Consumers in the United States are generally favorable to the use of gene editing in agriculture, according to a new survey  that I oversaw for the Alliance for Science and Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research.

But that receptivity diminishes slightly when gene editing is discussed in relationship to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The findings result from an online survey of 1,012 persons over the age of 18 conducted between May 26-June 5, 2022. The survey, conducted by Seattle-based Hemispheres, has a margin of error of + 3 percent.

Though three-quarters of those surveyed said they have little understanding of gene editing, 52 percent felt it offered positive benefits for agriculture. That figure increased to 66 percent after the respondents read an informational paragraph about the technology.

Even people who remained consistently negative to gene editing became less so after learning more about the benefits, suggesting that increased education and outreach can achieve gains in the public’s acceptance of the technology.

The survey found that people are particularly supportive of using gene editing to increase crop yields and boost climate-resiliency in countries that are food insecure. Other applications of gene editing that elicited a favorable response are reducing pesticide and fertilizer use; lowering food prices through higher yields; reducing water use in farming; boosting the nutritional value of food; helping crops adapt to climate change; removing allergens and gluten from foods; and developing fruits and vegetables that are naturally resistant to bruising and browning.

Respondents also supported the use of gene editing to help increase animal welfare, such as improving disease-resistance in livestock to minimize the use of veterinary drugs, helping livestock adapt to the higher temperatures associated with climate change and eliminating the need for egg producers to cull male chicks.

Respondents were also supportive of using gene editing to address environmental problems, such as creating “greener” biofuels that reduce the need for fossil fuel imports, developing natural alternatives to plastic, reducing methane produced by cows and accelerating the time needed to develop new crop varieties.

In both the survey and the six geographically diverse focus group sessions that informed the questionnaire, people expressed a desire to know if the products they were consuming are gene-edited.

They also want information about the testing and regulatory processes that are in place and reassurance that gene-edited foods are safe for consumption.

People also want to know more about the difference between gene editing and so-called GMOs — a conversation likely best conducted outside of discussions about specific gene-edited products. That’s because 62 percent of the respondents questioned the safety of eating genetically modified foods. Even briefly exploring the differences between gene editing and GMOs slightly decreases the number of people feeling very positive about gene editing.

However, explaining the possible benefits and applications for gene editing increased positive sentiment and decreased those who feel negative toward the technology.

The survey also offered insights into the demographics of those who support gene editing. They tend to be male, educated, enjoy higher incomes, live in a city and have children. They typically consume media related to science and technology daily and via all media sources, especially traditional media and scientific journals or websites. They are also more likely to vote for Democratic candidates.

This research was conducted to develop a gene editing messaging kit that can be used to communicate effectively about the technology. To that end, the survey revealed that people would like to see more public education about gene editing, including information about the technology’s potential downsides. A Spanish-language version of the messaging kit was also prepared.

Consumers are also interested in getting information about gene editing through videos, TV and radio where they can watch and/or listen to stories from scientists and farmers who have expertise and experience with gene-edited products. Additionally, 66 percent liked the idea of getting free samples of gene-edited foods in grocery stores.

Beating agriculture to death in Hawaii

Upon moving to Hawaii in 1987, I recall asking a seasoned journalist and lifelong resident why a state with abundant land, water and sunshine couldn’t feed itself. “It’s the brass ring that Hawaii just can’t seem to grasp,” he replied.

Three decades later, despite ample lip service paid to the dream of food security by legislators and lobbyists, academics and activists, Hawaii still imports more than 80 percent of its food. And with each passing year, the elusive brass ring moves further out of reach.

It wasn’t always that way. Prior to western contact, Hawaii supported an indigenous population estimated at more than 1 million through the intensive monoculture of taro, banana and sweet potato.  Its self-sufficiency continued through the first half of the 20th century, even though its farm sector was dominated by export crops like sugar cane and pineapple.

But with the advent of refrigerated cargo ships, California’s vast agricultural system, cheap labor in developing nations and a consumer palate desirous of delicacies in any season, Hawaii soon found itself unable to economically compete. It’s cheaper to import almost anything than produce it in the Islands.

Now, however, Hawaii’s agriculture is facing an even greater threat than economics: unrelenting attacks by activists. Ironically, they’re the very same ones most apt to crow “buy local,” even as they systematically undermine farmers in a quest to advance their own political ambitions. They’ve found agriculture to be a far weaker target than their old foes — the military and tourism — so their sociopolitical agendas are increasingly framed by narratives that denounce farming as the toxic, greed-driven practice of callous corporations.

The fight now is over who controls the water.

Most recently, they’ve added “water-sucking vampires,” “thieves” and “pirates” to their list of disparagements as they gun for agricultural water under the guise of sticking it to Alexander & Baldwin, one of the last “Big 5” landowners from Hawaii’s plantation era. This, too, is part of their formula, since it’s awfully easy to incite the public, or at least a loud enough fringe, when there’s a convenient bogeyman to malign.

But as is true in most wars, though the “big guys” are the target, the “little guys” are the inevitable collateral damage. Smallholder ranchers and farmers who are producing the local food that activists say they want to eat end up paying the price. They’re the ones who suffer the sleepless nights, the economic uncertainty that makes it impossible to plan and unwise to invest in their own operations. They’re the ones who are least able to afford lawyers, regulatory compliance, Environmental Impact Statements, lobbyists or even showing up at the state capitol to make their case.

They’re the ones who are increasingly demoralized by the ugly assaults on their character, their motives, their farming practices, their families. They’re the ones who are left to twist in the shifting political winds. As one weary farm leader noted, “Between the activists and the bureaucrats, it’s just too much. Our morale is so low I can’t even rally the troops anymore.”

A storm is brewing over agriculture in Hawaii.

And who can blame them? In recent years, activists have waged bloody battles at both the county and state levels over growing genetically modified crops — Hawaii has a large and lucrative GM and hybrid parent seed industry — disclosing pesticide use, banning certain pesticides, imposing buffer zones around farms, burning sugar cane fields and most recently, accessing water for farming.

Though the activists say they’re trying to protect Hawaii’s environment, they somehow fail to note that their relentless destruction of agriculture comes at its own environmental price: the massive carbon emissions associated with transporting food thousands of miles to the most isolated inhabited landmass on Earth.

Unlike the farmers and ranchers who have devoted their lives to agriculture, these activists have nothing at stake, no dog in the fight. Indeed, they stand only to gain, both through the fundraising that accompanies their practice of conflict activism and their desire to obtain political power.

Like politicians everywhere, many of Hawaii’s lawmakers are cowardly, opportunistic and willing to cave the moment the drummed-up outcry grows loud enough, which is why they rejected a bill that would have kept the water flowing. Some, like state Sen. Kai Kahele, even make silly, gratuitous comments in a bid to curry favor with the activists: “This is a generation that is awakened. It’s a generation that is intelligent and knows its history. It sticks to its core values.”

Actually, the activists span several generations, have no recognizable core values other than a shared opposition to modern agriculture, are shockingly ignorant of Hawaii’s history and largely limit their education to the teachings of their social media echo chamber. And rather than “awakened,” they’re sleepwalking through a dream of romanticism, nostalgia and self-interest. But then, Kahele probably didn’t notice, because, like him, they’re prone to grandstanding, with a distinct disregard for reality and the truth.

They can’t yet control Hawaii’s political machine, so they’re trying instead to control Hawaii’s agriculture — even though they don’t understand how easily the local farmers markets can be flooded, the impossibility of processing livestock with a dearth of slaughterhouses, the unrelenting challenges of pests and plant diseases in the tropics, the need to supply both local and export markets, the role that the big growers play in supporting the smaller ones, the value of preserving Hawaii’s irrigation systems. These are the people who demand local food as they fight ranching and dairy operations, who reject any conventional ag practice as “industrial farming,” who rail against corporations even as they pull out their iPhones to wax poetic about the awesome organic offerings at Costco and Whole Foods.

Which is why they can earnestly claim, “of course we support small farmers,” even as they systematically act to destroy their livelihoods and lives.

Well, actions speak far louder than words. Especially when the words are so often clichés and lies. When the water stops flowing and the farms dry up and the cattle are culled, they’ll be left with the consequences of their actions — gentrification, tourism and expensive imported food.

And they still won’t have a seat at the political power table.

Hawaii’s regressive “progressives”

In a recent Star-Advertiser article, Hawaii Democratic Party member Bart Dame makes an odd observation about the so-called “progressive” movement in the Islands:

Dame noted that progressives have traditionally been a minority in Hawaii politics, but said their influence appears to be growing. He noted the penchant for mainstream Hawaii politicians to now try to identify with the label.

“They are explicitly embracing that word progressive and trying to sell themselves as progressives,” said Dame. “So that is a kind of proof that there is some success with the branding of progressive.”

Uh, what value is a movement when it’s all brand and no substance? A brand that Dame openly acknowledges has been co-opted by those who do not necessarily share the underlying values? A brand that in Hawaii is used by folks who engage in the most regressive types of behavior, including lying, fear-mongering, deception, cronyism, stifling dissent, personal attacks, bullying, mob rule and money-grubbing — in short, the same old dirty politics as usual?

The sun has long set on Hawaii’s “progressive” political movement.

Before I get into some specifics of the above, let’s look at a similar branding example that Dame and his ilk will understand — the organic movement. Oh, there was an outraged hue and cry when the mega dairies adopted the coveted organic brand. Sure, these companies met the organic certification standards. But in the eyes of the purists they weren’t truly organic because they didn’t have six cows grazing behind a big red barn. Instead, they were businessmen who saw economic value in the organic brand, which rakes in $43 billion annually in the US alone, and co-opted it.

The same is pretty much true for “progressive” politics in Hawaii. Whatever nascent progressive movement was stirring a decade or two ago in Hawaii has been snuffed out by power-hungry politicians and activists who smelled votes — and money — in the progressive label.


A perfect example is Gary Hooser, who with Dame formed the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action. The Star-Advertiser article describes him (and Dame) as “local progressive leaders,” but the voters of Kauai feel differently. Though Hooser spent more on his 2016 campaign than any politician in Kauai history, voters chose not to re-elect him to the Kauai County Council because they saw that his self-serving grandstanding around the anti-GMO issue cost the county serious bucks and polarized the community. Despite his resounding defeat, Hooser still embraces the despicable tactics of lying, fear-mongering and deception to push his political agenda. That’s not progressive by any definition I can find.

HAPA, too, is progressive in name only. The group refuses to disclose its funding sources or expenditures — even as it demands full transparency from others — and engages in political activities that most certainly can be defined as lobbying, without the required legal disclosures.

And just look at the politicians HAPA has endorsed! People like Maui Councilman Alika Atay, who is being investigated for awarding a $100,000 country grant to his executive assistant Brian Bardellini (a guy so nasty he’s been barred from visiting Council Services offices and interacting with state Department of Ag officials) and using his own campaign-style photo to promote the taxpayer-funded event.

Atay used his own photo to promote a publicly-funded event.

Then there’s state Rep. Kaniela Ing, the Congressional candidate whose website claims: “Kaniela is the candidate who has consistently fought for progressive values, secured record funding for his district, and does not accept donations from corporations.” What he does do is drive without auto insurance and miss court appearances, lie about his academic record, misuse campaign contributions to pay rent and credit card bills, and file false campaign reports, netting a $15,000 fine.

Progressive candidate Ing is truth-challenged.

And Big Island Councilwoman Jen Ruggles, who pretended to be a concerned citizen while on the payroll of Pesticide Action Network as a political operative.

Oh, and let’s not forget convicted felon and Maui Councilwoman Elle Cochran, the mayoral hopeful whose executive assistant, Autumn Rae Ness, actively lobbies the state Legislature on behalf of anti-GMO groups, without registering as a lobbyist.

But Hawaii’s “progressives” have not criticized these politicians for their sleazy deeds. Nope, their support remains unwavering. Just like the so-called “progressives” never spoke up when their more rabid followers were circulating “wanted: dead or alive” posters aimed at octogenarian seed breeder Jim Brewbaker and insulting memes about judges who returned verdicts they didn’t like.

A Babes Against Biotech meme attacking Judge Susan Oki Mollway for her ruling.

Meanwhile, the so-called progressives also continue to support groups like Babes Against Biotech, Earthjustice (whose Hawaii director, Paul Achitoff, serves on the HAPA board), Hawaii SEED, Center for Food Safety and Pesticide Action Network — organizations that refuse to practice financial transparency, actively engage in producing and disseminating propaganda, seek to stifle any dissent among their ranks or criticism from the public, and have a decided aversion to the truth.

These groups and their leaders aren’t progressives. They’re demagogues who are trying to wrest political power from those who currently hold it, using a “brand” that they think will appeal to the young, disenfranchised new arrivals from the mainland who are desperately seeking to belong in Hawaii’s cliquish circles.

To me, progressives are people who speak up when wrongs are being committed. They aren’t people who commit wrongs while declaring themselves holier than thou. That simply makes them hypocrites. And that goes for Bart Dame, whose ugly intolerance was revealed in many comment threads on public news sites, as well as in his hateful messages to me.

Which leads me to the news source of “progressives” in Hawaii: Civil Beat. It’s bankrolled by Pierre Omidyar, who is so ethically challenged that he has no problem sitting on an editorial board and influencing coverage of groups that he funds through money donated to the Hawaii Community Foundation.

Civil Beat has made a mockery out of journalism. If you have any doubts about Omidyar’s political agenda, just look at how his other vanity press, Intercept, aggressively pushed the candidacy of New York Social Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

If Omidyar wants to finance partisan publications and surreptitiously influence politics, fine. But he shouldn’t pretend that he’s running objective, legitimate news outlets while operating like the Koch brothers — his billionaire brethren on the other side of the political spectrum.

Similarly, if folks want to behave like intolerant bullies with no regard for the truth as they seek money, fame and political power, fine. But they shouldn’t try to pass themselves off as progressives. Because they aren’t.

So yes, Dame may be correct that “progressive” is a new political buzzword in Hawaii. But as it’s currently defined and practiced in the Islands, it’s nothing more than a knock-off brand, like a cheap Louis Vuitton handbag.

Changing minds about GMOs

A message out of the blue from a far-flung family member revealed an archived text conversation —and with it, the 180-degree shift in my thinking around GMOs.

It went like this:

Him: In 3 or 4 sentences can you tell me the worst aspects of GMO foods? I’m still not convinced on this matter.

Me: Some people fear the foods will cause allergies and health problems, others worry about the increased use of pesticides associated with GMO crops, and still others fear chemical companies gaining a monopoly over the food supply by controlling seeds. My main concern is with possible environmental impacts as these engineered organisms are released into nature, such as the salmon engineered to grow super fast possibly wiping out natural salmon.

Him: I agree completely. But what about Norman Borlaug who I thought created GMO wheat which saved billions of lives in India & China? Any comment on him?

That’s where it ended — or at least that thread. In the four years since, I’ve learned that neither of us really knew what the hell we were talking about. Though I, as the first reporter to cover the GMO issue in Hawaii, sure thought I did.

I now know there is no GMO wheat and that Borlaug’s “Green Revolution” did indeed save upwards of a billion lives, but it started in Mexico before spreading to India and Pakistan. It would take a while longer to reach China. And anyway, all of this was done well before humans figured out what bacteria have known for eons: how to shuttle genes between organisms.

The engineered salmon is raised in inland pens, among other safeguards, and has virtually no chance of wiping out “natural” salmon. In fact, it could help protect wild stocks from our voracious appetites while reducing the carbon emissions associated with all the sea-farmed salmon we import. It’s just one of many biotech applications that are helping to reduce agriculture’s huge environmental footprint.

There is no evidence that GMOs are any more or less healthful or allergenic than their non-modified counterparts, as evidenced by more than two decades of widespread GMO consumption. In fact, biotechnology can actually remove harmful things from crops, like aflatoxin from peanuts and mycotoxin from corn.

Similarly, 20 years of production have produced enough data to show that pest-resistant Bt corn — perhaps the most reviled crop in anti-GMO circles — has resulted in higher yields and decreased pesticide use, while also creating a beneficial “halo effect” for organic crops, in terms of reduced pest pressure. In Bangladesh, Bt brinjal (eggplant) has dramatically cut the use of insecticides. The same is true for Bt cotton in Burkina Faso and India.

As for chemical companies gaining a monopoly over the food supply and seeds, well, anti-GMO activism is turning that fear into a self-fulfilling prophecy by clamoring for an expensive, prolonged approval process. Currently, only the big guys can afford to play, while countless public sector projects languish. But in any case, some GM seeds, like Golden Rice, are patent- and license-free, not under corporate control.

I learned all this because events rocked my worldview to such a degree that I began questioning deeply held ideas and beliefs. The catalyst was witnessing — and then personally experiencing — the repressive tactics of the anti-GMO movement, which I’d long supported, as it launched a campaign to end GM parent seed production in Hawaii. That disenchantment led me to an intensive process of soul-searching, reflection and research — not unlike the one that my colleague Mark Lynas, a former GM crop saboteur turned biotech advocate, outlines in his new book, “Seeds of Science.”

Like Mark, I did an about face on GMOs that earned me the wrath of some — and informed the most recent text from my relative:

“Just found out you’re living in Santa Fe, and that you got harassed from the left in Hawaii on your GMO reporting.”

It was accompanied by the laughing-to-tears emoji. And it made me laugh, too, to be confronted with a text time-capsule of erroneous views that I’d once so earnestly believed.

It’s all rather hilarious when you stop to think about it, this tendency we have to cling to our beliefs, even false ones, and our “facts,” even the alternative ones.

In the absence of real knowledge, we rely on personal views, or the guidance of someone we respect, or the ideology of our tribe, which we unquestioningly accept as the truth. Except, it usually isn’t.

As reasonable and thinking human beings, we can change our minds when confronted with compelling new evidence. It’s hard, but possible. And that’s a very good thing, especially for those of us who cherish Enlightenment values and critical thinking.

I’ve also come to learn that GMOs are a stand-in for many other gripes, like industrialization and corporatization. They’re viewed as the nemesis of a simpler, saner, slower way of life. For those who worship the god of organic, GMOs are nothing less than the devil himself. I understand all that, because I felt much the same way just four short years ago.

It’s OK to wax nostalgic for family farms and self-sufficiency. It’s great to want safe food, and a healthy, biodiverse ecosystem. It’s laudable to advocate for social justice and food security. But none of these concepts are antithetical to GMOs, which are simply a crop breeding technology.

In re-reading that old text thread, I was reminded that my errors stemmed from ignorance, rather than malice. That isn’t necessarily true for all who agitate against GMOs, however. Some have deep financial interests, whether it’s promoting a label, a product, lawsuits, or conflict activism, and like all self-interested opportunists, they don’t warrant any slack when they spread lies.

But the majority of those who hold anti-GMO beliefs are uninformed and confused. To reach them, we need to focus on sharing the human stories and compelling examples that can drill through a solidified mindset.

And we have to set the record straight, wherever we find it wrong.

If die-hards can change their hearts and minds, so too can those who are bewildered and uncertain about genetic engineering because all they’ve ever heard is something bad (and invariably incorrect).

This is not about getting everyone to agree, or even about being right. It’s about getting it right when it comes to ag biotech. Getting it wrong causes harm, whether it’s Mark uprooting field trials of GMO crops, Western elitism hindering global access to seed innovation, or me as a journalist disseminating incorrect information. As we struggle to feed billions in an era when climate change is making farming increasingly tenuous, we don’t have much room for error.

Is “organic” going through an existential crisis?

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.

Image by CNBC

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.

Hydroponic lettuce. Image by

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.

As a result, some media sources have been looking more critically at core consumer assumptions about the organic brand, notably its claims to be pesticide-free and more nutritious than its conventionally grown counterpart.

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.

EPA funds anti-GMO movement in Hawaii

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.

A west Kauai seed field. Photo by Joan Conrow

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.”

Now, as then

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?

TellurideIn 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.

CrestedToday 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.

taillingsIn 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.

mtn“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.

trainUnlike 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.

churchIt’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?

Project and deflect

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.

Screen Shot 2017-06-26 at 10.30.23 AM

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.”

Screen Shot 2017-06-26 at 10.28.07 AM

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.”

I guess that’s their way of dealing with the cognitive dissonance described by a New York Times movie reviewer:

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.

Screen Shot 2017-06-26 at 10.28.07 AMJust 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.

Screen Shot 2017-06-26 at 10.49.07 AMNestle, 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?

Credit where credit is due

Science educator Kevin Folta recently published a blog post about the anti-GMO trolls that dog him in every online forum.

Other distinguished academics have been harassed and publicly disparaged because their research includes the tools of biotechology (genetic engineering). Some scientists fly under the radar, keeping mum about their research in hopes of avoiding the antis’ furor.

My own sister was stunned to hear about the threats and intimidation I’ve experienced as a writer criticizing and scrutinizing the anti-GMO movement, the friendships that have been strained by my stance, the vitriol that has been spewed against me.

“All that over GMOs?” she asked in bewilderment.

Yes, it is rather astonishing for people who are not in the trenches to discover the intensity that surrounds a plant breeding method — especially one that has been in use for nearly three decades, with a solid safety record.

The general public remains largely unaware of the ugliness, the cult-like operations, the slick propaganda, the near-religious fervor of the anti-GMO movement.

Typically outrageous anti-GMO propaganda.

Why? Primarily because mainstream media outlets continue to treat anti-GMO activists like credible advocates for environmental and public health, rather than the well-funded bullies they are.

Their actions are rarely called to account; their funding sources are never scrutinized. Indeed, they’re typically not assigned any culpability at all for the contentious and largely manufactured “debate” around GMOs.

A case in point is the recent Washington Post article: “Forget GMOs. The next big battle is over genetically ‘edited’ foods.” Reporter Caitlin Dewey lays all the blame for the “unqualified public relations disaster,” the “public backlash,” the “consumer skepticism,” the global “public outcry [that] has prevented seeds from winning government approval” on industry. Or more specifically:

Since the late ’90s, when Monsanto botched the introduction of genetically modified crops in Europe, consumers have treated the term “GMO” as if it were a dirty word.

Dewey makes absolutely no mention of how Jeremy Rifkin, Greenpeace, Center for Food Safety, Pesticide Action Network and other individuals and groups have carefully, deliberately and relentlessly waged a fear-mongering campaign intended to sow public distrust of the technology.

An anti-GMO billboard produced by Center for Food Safety.

This campaign has included the production of slick propaganda in the form of videos, supposedly independent journalism produced by paid sympathizers, advertisements and a steady stream of social media memes and messages.

It has employed despicable bullying and intimidation tactics designed to silence academics, stifle research and scare prospective biotech students, college presidents and politicians.

It has used lawsuits and the threat of litigation, clandestine and undisclosed lobbying activities, and lies about health and environmental impacts to push anti-GMO legislation.

It even coined the now ubiquitous term “GMOs” as a disparaging phrase.

Source: Genetic Literacy Project

The public backlash against GMOs didn’t occur organically and spontaneously. It was fomented and fed by activists who were motivated by political ideology and/or financial gain, with wealthy philanthropists, anonymous donors and some elements of the organic food industry footing the bill.

I’ve written extensively about this, as has author Mark Lynas, a former anti who switched sides, as I did. The fear-based anti-GMO narrative has been picked up around the world not because it has any basis in reality, but because it’s been systematically pounded into the heads of people who don’t understand science.

As Mark recently noted in the new documentary Food Evolution: “It’s easier to scare people than reassure them.”

To which I would add, especially when groups and activists can make so much money and wield so much influence through fear-mongering.

I’ve documented the money flow that fueled the growth of the anti-GMO movement in Hawaii and the political power gained — at least temporarily — by the politicians who embraced its fear-based, fact-challenged mantra.

Groups like Center for Food Safety, Earthjustice and Pesticide Action Network use conflict as a business model, stirring up fears around GMOs and pesticides to attract followers and solicit donations. The organic industry also has benefitted financially from all the lies spread about crop biotech. Not to mention the Non-GMO Project, which makes money certifying that products like salt, which have never been genetically engineered, are indeed GMO-free.

As the Risk-Monger blogger noted in a Facebook post:

The global market for certified organic food is 110 billion USD; the GMO seed market is worth 40 billion USD (source: vFluence). It is indeed a David v Goliath situation, but who is the David and who is the Goliath?

Despite Caitlin Dewey’s assertion that industry’s rollout was an epic fail, agribusiness companies actually did a very good job of communicating the new technology to their customers — farmers. And farmers, especially in the US, have responded in a big way, overwhelmingly adopting genetically engineered crops that offer pest protection and/or herbicide tolerance traits.

Industry didn’t realize consumers would care — or that activists would launch a global fear-mongering campaign to derail the technology by making consumers worry about made up stuff — until it was too late.

Reporters are slowly beginning to acknowledge that public fears around GMOs are not rooted in scientific fact. But they still haven’t gotten around to telling their readers who planted and fertilized those fears.

By failing to out the activists and disclose their outsized influence on the GMO debate, they allow the fear-mongerers, demagogues and opportunists to continue their work without scrutiny or accountability.

And that’s a real shame, both in terms of honest reporting and the lost potential of agricultural biotech.

Food as a political weapon

While driving on Kauai’s Kuhio Highway in the pre-dawn hours, I came upon a large sow and four piglets, all dead alongside the road just north of Anahola, apparent victims of a vehicular collision.

I’d never encountered quite that scale of porcine carnage, but it underscored the message I’ve been getting from Kauai farmers the past few days: wild pigs are causing ever more damage to their crops.

Just the day before I’d sat with a farmer at twilight and watched several sows and as many as 20 piglets meander thorough a valley where he’s growing crops. Earlier, we’d spotted fresh scat beneath fruit trees. He wanted to trap the sows, but didn’t want their orphaned piglets running loose on his farm, frightened and slowly dying of starvation. So he’d been waiting. But pigs are fecund, and he was constantly discovering a new batch of young piglets before he could trap the sows.

He’d fenced as much as he could, as had a flower farmer down the road, who said he’d spent thousands of dollars on sturdy hog wire to keep the pigs from uprooting his tropical flowers and devouring the corms, setting production back a year or more. But they were continually busting new holes in the wire.

Wild pigs rooting in a meadow. Photo by USDA/APHIS

Kauai farmers aren’t the only ones suffering. Wild pigs are now a worldwide problem, damaging crops in Italy, Sweden, the UK, the US and elsewhere. And as AgWeb reports, they also destroy native flora and fauna and carry diseases that can spread to domestic swine. Researchers in Scotland are trying to genetically engineer resistance to one of the worst swine diseases, but given the fury of the anti-GMO movement, it’s unclear whether GE pigs could ever make it to market.

Meanwhile, Kauai farmers also tell of crop damage caused by birds, ranging from endangered nene, coots, gallinue and stilts to introduced rose-ringed parakeets. Another told of a new plant disease that was slowly destroying his tropical fruit trees.

On Maui, Upcountry farmers told of damage from deer, and baffling changes in the weather that are making it increasingly difficult to grow the crops they’ve been cultivating for years. They were uncertain whether the changes were permanent or temporary, making it hard to decide whether to switch to other crops.

And everywhere, there is evidence of the gentrification that is taking farm land out of production and driving up the cost of ag land to the place where it’s no longer feasible to use it for its zoned purpose.

Indeed, the most expensive property in Hawaii is a $70 million house on North Shore Kauai ag land that skyrocketed in value when the Kauai County Council decided transient vacation rentals were an acceptable use on farm land. In this case, the place rents for $10,000 per night.

Screen Shot 2017-06-01 at 1.13.17 PMNo farmer can compete with that, even when Hoku market is selling organic local carrots for $4.50 per pound.

The mainland is seeing its own problems as farmers retire or die and land is sold for gentleman estates, exclusive hunting retreats and other recreational uses.

Drought, excessive rain, insect pressure, predation, plant disease, labor shortages and a dizzying array of new food safety regulations and other laws are making farming increasingly difficult. Farmers tell me they stick it out because they have a passion for agriculture; they love the lifestyle and in some cases, want to continue a family legacy.

Meanwhile, they’re increasingly frustrated and dispirited by having to deal with the demands and unrealistic expectations of a public that is growing ever more distant from the realities of agriculture. Not to mention groups like Center for Food Safety and Pesticide Action Network that are trying to use food prodution as a weapon for forcing political and social change.

Which is why we have food writer Mark Bittman — identified as a Center for Food Safety “friend” — making asanine proclamations like these:

Recognize racism, poverty, and inequality as underlying causes of all our food problems.

Really? And production issues — not to mention the ignorance and expectations of people like Bittman and his pals at CFS — don’t even factor into the equation?

Bittman is one of the food activists who believe that everything will be rosy if only we convert to organic, with no thought as to how that will affect production or prices. And they’re mum about how social justice will be achieved by requiring ever more people to engage in manual farm labor — work now performed predominantly by poor immigrants.

He writes of a campaign trying to pressure the “New York City Council to make free and healthy school meals available to all public school students in the city, regardless of income,” without mentioning how anti-GMO activists pressured NY schools to stop using any genetically engineered ingredients, even though a ban was estimated to increase lunch costs by 7 percent.

If Bittman,, truly believe that “farming should happen in harmony with the environment,” then why are they fighting genetic engineering, which offers tools for growing food in a more environmentally sustainable manner, with fewer pesticides, less nitrogen fertilizer, less tilling, less water and higher yields?

And if they’re so concerned about social justice, why are they trying so hard to prevent farmers in developing nations from accessing agricultural technology and innovation that can help them produce sufficient yield to escape poverty?

Bittman writes:

The food justice movement—despite its disparate constituencies—stands for the principle that people should have the right to shape their food environment.

Yeah, they should have that right — if they are willing to get out there and do the hard, dirty, perilous and uncertain business of producing food.

Otherwise, you get clean-handed elites like Bittman — and Center for Food Safety — trying to dictate the terms of a system they do not understand or participate in, other than as privileged consumers who can afford local organic carrots at $4.50 per pound while pretending they give a rat’s ass about the fate of the hungry and poor.