Musings, etc.

How now brown cow?

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.

Glass of chocolate milk with red straw on a wooden tableBrown_Cow

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.

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.

Just wondering

Sometimes I get to wondering about things.

chickenLike chicken breasts. And what, exactly, is the difference between these two? Besides the obvious: one is boneless, skinless and $1.99 per pound; the other has skin and ribs, and is $4.49 per pound.

Are the more expensive chickens healthier? I mean, seeing as how they were raised solely on veggies — that the chicken grower can trace back to the farm, no less — and given no antibiotics, growth stimulants, animal by-products or hormones?

Of course, hormones and growth stimulants aren’t allowed in poultry, anyway. And having raised chickens, I know they’re ruthless little carnivores, happily devouring insects, worms and whatever finds its way into their enclosure — even their own eggs. So I’m not convinced a vegetarian diet is superior, and it’s certainly not “natural.”

Were the more expensive chickens happier before they died? I mean, since they were raised in a Whole Foods Step 2 “enriched environment” that requires “good quality bedding (which promotes good health and welfare and allows birds to dustbathe), a maximum transport time of eight hours and enrichments that encourage behavior that’s natural to them, such as pecking, perching and foraging.” (Just as long as they don’t eat non-vegetarian bugs…)

Like many other people who love animals, even though we eat them, I don’t like to think the meat I’m consuming suffered while during its incaration as a chicken, lamb, cow or pig. So the marketers appeal to us with kind, humane claims like “free range, cage-free, enriched environment.”

But then I read an article about the down side of cage-free chickens. As Popular Science reported:

In mature flocks, up to 86 percent of chickens may be silently suffering from broken breast (“keel”) bones from crashing into other birds, or misjudging the distance between two perches.

The potential solutions will likely range from food additives that strengthen the chickens’ bones, to redesigning their housing systems. Breeding and genetic engineering may even be proposed as solutions.

Hmmm. Would the anti-GMO activists accept a genetically-engineered chicken if it meant a better quality of life?

How did food get so complicated? Who do I, the consumer, trust? Should I just be grateful that I have so many choices, and the money to exercise them?

My wonderings about food animals got me wondering about companion animals, and the people who shouldn’t have them. My Yahoo news feed sends me a steady stream of stories that make it clear Americans now have precious little tolerance for animal abuse. Which is a good thing, because guys who abuse animals are also likely to abuse their wife and kids.  Increasing numbers of people — typically men — are being sent to jail for harming their pets. How, I wondered, do the other prisononers treat a guy who punched a puppy in the face because it chewed his shoe, strangled a dog because it barfed in his car? Do they mete out not so divine retribution? Or welcome the creep into their fold?

Then I got to wondering about energy, and our quest for a source that’s clean and green, so we can consume it with gleeful oblivion, and no guilt. This typically leads to cries of “harness the sun and the wind!”

Mojave desert solar project

Except the huge solar projects in the Mojave desert are frying bats and birds — an estimated 6,000 birds per year. In fact, it happens so frequently along this migratory flyway that there’s a horrible name for it: “streamers.” As the Los Angeles Times reported:

A macabre fireworks show unfolds each day along I-15 west of Las Vegas, as birds fly into concentrated beams of sunlight and are instantly incinerated, leaving wisps of white smoke against the blue desert sky.

In addition, coyotes eat dozens of road runners trapped  along the outside of a perimeter fence that was designed to prevent federally threatened desert tortoises from wandering onto the property.

Then there’s wind power’s dirty little secret, as reported by Bloomberg:

Wind turbines were planted along a strip of Mexico’s southern coast to make the country’s power industry cleaner. Now they’re spilling oil. Much of the power produced by the wind turbines is sent to Mexico’s biggest companies, like Cemex SAB and Wal-Mart’s Mexico branch, known as Walmex, which get tax incentives in return for using renewable energy.

So is it worth burning up birds in mid-flight to keep the phony glitz and glitter of Vegas ablaze; to have oil spilled on Mexican ag land to provide tax breaks to Wal-Mart and a mutinational cement corporation?

How did energy get so complicated? Is it all a series of trade-offs? When will we face the fact that there is no free energy lunch, even with the so-called “renewables?”

Or should I just be grateful that I have so many energy choices, and the money to exercise them?

And then I wondered, does anyone else wonder about these things, too?

Center for Food Safety: Cravenly collaborative

In one of its most craven moves to date, the Center for Food Safety is using a Hawaii pesticide complaint for a fundraising campaign.

The group’s email solicitation raises questions about whether the complaint is legit, or orchestrated to give CFS a platform to keep slamming Hawaii’s seed companies after the group failed to achieve victories in either the courts or the state Legislature.

On May 12, former DuPont-Pioneer worker Shannell Grilho filed suit against the company, claiming she was fired in December 2015 after complaining about herbicide use on its Waialua seed farm and the supposed “whistle blower” retaliation that followed. Her husband’s job was terminated a month later.

Fired seed company worker Shannel Grilho. Image by Hawaii News Now.

Anita Hofschneider reported on the lawsuit Monday morning for Pierre Omidyar’s vanity press, Civil Beat. Omidyar has donated money to CFS, and Hofschneider and other Civil Beat reporters have written numerous articles favorable to the group. Civil Beat’s editorial board, of which Omidyar is a member, also published an editorial calling for heightened agricultural pesticide restrictions just hours before CFS and other anti-GMO groups staged a press conference demanding that Gov. Ige adopt the very same controls that Civil Beat endorsed.

In covering the pesticide complaint story, Hofschneider wrote:

The suit could fuel concerns about the seed industry’s use of pesticides on genetically modified crops and their potential effects on public health and the environment.

Oh, how handy for the anti-GMO activists. And how curious that Grilho was fired nearly 18 months ago, but only now brings suit — just one month after the antis failed to convince the Hawaii Legislature to impose any new restrictions on the seed industry. Their failure was amplified by the fact that a federal appeals court earlier had ruled that state law pre-empted the ability of activists to impose restrictions on the seed companies at the county level, requiring them to instead seek remedies through the Legislature.

Grilho’s attorney is Michael Green, who admittedly seeks high profile cases to keep building his business and brags about defending street gangs, organized crime figures, high-profile drug dealers, disgraced politicians, bad cops and other pillars of society.

In any case, CFS wasted no time in capitalizing on Anita’s story. Within a few hours, it had sent out an email blast with this breathless assertion:

It’s all over the news [only Civil Beat had reported on it at that point], and it’s serious: An Oʻahu woman has filed a lawsuit against her former employer, DuPont Pioneer, stating she was retaliated against after reporting misuse of pesticides on the company’s North Shore field test site.

According to Civil Beat, Shannell Grilho’s supervisor ordered her to remain working in close proximity to a pesticide application site, despite the safety regulations listed on the label. As a result, she was “exposed to considerable amounts of air-born herbicide that covered her clothes, skin, eyes, and face, and which she ingested and inhaled.”

CFS then makes like the allegations are fact, and it is in the position to “protect people like Shannel,” who are already well-protected by the very laws cited in the complaint:


The flagrant disregard displayed by DuPont in this case is sadly not new – and it’s exactly why Hawaiʻi CFS is fighting so hard to force chemical companies to disclose the pesticides they spray, and when they spray them. But we can’t do it without your help. Help us fight back today.

It then linked to a page where donations could be made, before making this bizarre claim:

Biotech corporations operating in Hawaiʻi think they can get away with this behavior because they are not required to disclose the amounts and types of chemicals they spray. It’s clear that the current voluntary programs do not work, but our legislators have been unwilling to pass any legislation to regulate these operations.

Huh? Grilho’s complaint, even if it’s upheld, has absolutely nothing to with the sort of broad, public pesticide disclosure that CFS has been seeking. Everything that Grilho alleges is already covered under federal and state pesticide and worker safety laws. CFS and its agenda are totally irrelevant, in terms of protecting workers from experiencing what Grilho claims happened to her.

In short, CFS is just being opportunistic. Or more likely, given its past unscrupulous behavior, it’s being opportunistic and collaborative, working with Grilho and Civil Beat to keep up the unceasing attack against the seed companies when it’s otherwise run out of ammunition.

Filmmakers distort GMO ag in Hawaii

Hollywood has a long history of romanticizing and misrepresenting Hawaii. Now indie directors are getting into the act with a slew of “documentaries” that gravely distort agriculture in the Islands, most especially the GMO seed crops.

These flicks have become so common in recent years — not coincidentally coinciding with the rise of the anti-GMO movement in Hawaii — that they’re in danger of creating a whole new genre: earnestly erroneous docudramas. They all follow the same cookie-cutter formula: “Paradise” is being “poisoned” by multinational chem companies, and it can be saved only by white knights (read Caucasian activists) and a return to ancient agricultural practices.

Though most of the filmmakers are unknowns, actor Pierce Brosnan’s wife Keely recently got into the act with “Poisoning Paradise,” as did pro surfer Cyrus Sutton with “Island Earth.”

You might reasonably ask what a celebrity’s wife and a surfer know about agriculture. The answer, upon viewing their films, is very little.

But that’s OK, because these movies aren’t really about farming. They’re about promoting an ideology — a romanticized, Utopian view that the world can be fed from backyard plots, without pesticides, using traditional methods that have been largely abandoned in favor of practices that are far more efficient and less labor intensive.

Ill-informed surfers opine about farming in Sutton’s new flick. Photo by Island Earth.

Because who really does want to spend their time toiling in the hot, humid tropics growing the traditional Hawaiian food source, taro? Certainly not foodies. Or celebrity wives. Or surfers. Which is why taro production has plummeted and Hawaii imports so much farm labor from Micronesia, Mexico and the Philippines.

What’s annoying, though, is that these filmmakers feel they must trash modern agriculture, especially biotechnology, in order to advance their ideology. Which does make sense when you consider it’s a lot easier, and more fun, to make a movie than to actually put a farming philosophy into practice — despite all the rhetoric about waging a “food revolution.”

Still, it sounds so hip to preach, as Sutton and others do, about the social injustice of Hawaii importing 90 percent of its food while the evil chem corps grow seeds; the environmental travesty of poisoning a pristine island ecosystem with pesticides as citizens valiantly battle the marauders.

The reality however, is something very different. Hawaii hasn’t fed itself since the early 1960s, when the advent of refrigerated cargo containers and jet travel made it much cheaper to import food than produce it locally. Meanwhile, the Islands have thousands of acres of fallow farm land, much of it state-owned, where the activists could put their bucolic dreams into practice — if only they were willing to do the work.

And yes, the ancients did manage to feed themselves because the entire population devoted much of its time to producing food; they cultivated every inch of available land (to the detriment of low-elevation forests and endemic species); they ate a limited diet that most modern folks would reject, and they didn’t have to feed 8 million tourists annually. Sutton’s romanticism aside, Hawaii is never going back to the days of olde.

What’s more, the seed companies have been a part of Hawaii agriculture for half-a-century, and nobody said a peep until the anti-GMO movement turned its sights on the Islands, intent on destroying the parent seed production that is carried out there.

So they started spreading a lot of lies that Sutton and his fellow filmmakers regurgitate without question, along with the sites that promote their movies. Which is why we have Sutton and GrindTV saying that Kauai school children were poisoned by seed company pesticides — that never actually happened — and Sutton and Modern Farmer claiming that the seed fields are used to test restricted use pesticides.

Wrong. Pesticide testing is done in closed facilities on the mainland. Hawaii’s land is used to grow hybrid and GMO parent seed, which is shipped to breeders all over the world, and to test the efficacy of various traits as they’re grown out in an actual field setting.

The filmmakers also trot out the same cast of characters — ill-informed surfers, failed politicians, Earthjustice attorneys, Center for Food Safety lobbyists and a few token Hawaiians who have become the indigenous poster children of the anti-GMO movement — to claim that they and the aina (land) are being poisoned by these companies.

Except the antis never been able to present any evidence of health harm — save for one dubious hair sample — or environmental damage. Indeed, a state survey found urban Honolulu streams, not farm areas, had the highest concentration of pesticides. And pesticides used to treat termites turned up far more often, and in far greater quantities, than ag pesticides, in the multi-year, statewide water samples collected by Surfrider.

We never hear, in these movies, from the many locals and Hawaiians who willingly and happily work in the seed fields, and chafe at allegations that they’re harming the land and their fellow citizens. We never hear how the seed companies support food production by growing their own crops, sub-leasing fields to small farmers and maintaining irrigations systems. We never hear that all the leading scientific agencies agree that GMO foods are safe.  And we certainly never hear how some GMO seeds actually reduce pesticide use.

Food crop being grown on Pioneer’s Oahu seed farm. Photo by Alika Napier

That’s because the indie filmmakers have a specific narrative to advance, and they’re sticking to it, regardless of inconviences like reality and facts.

In his interview with Modern Farmer, Sutton claimed:

Making this movie, I tried to check my biases at the door. I’ve learned since making this film that to say GMOs are bad is akin to saying something like a computer or cellphone is inherently bad because it gives off radiation, or that nuclear power is bad. I don’t think we’re going to get very far in the conversation if we villainize a specific technology, but I am deeply concerned by our society’s deployment of those [GMO] technologies. These companies hold up niche applications of GMO technology, like golden rice or the GMO papaya, as potentially feeding the world, but the vast majority of its use is to create resistance to proprietary blends of chemicals, and this is all being tested in Hawaii. As a storyteller, I needed to cut through that greenwashing and let people know what’s actually going on.

Unfortunately, Sutton failed to check his biases, cut through the greenwashing of the anti-GMO movement or let people know what’s actually going on in the Islands. Instead, he – and the other filmmakers who have flocked to the Islands to tell the same canned story — advance a false, simplistic narrative that is just as damaging to Hawaii as the phony concepts used to promote mass tourism.

Which is partly why I produced Hawaii GMO Papaya: Real Solutions, Real Lives as an antidote.

Reporters: Beware of being used as pawns

Peter Phillips went to bed on May 6 a distinguished professor in the University of Saskatchewan Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.

He awoke May 7 with his reputation besmirched, unjustly forced to wear a scarlet letter. In his case, it was an “S” — for shill, or sock puppet — that had been appliqued by the anti-GMO advocacy group, US Right to Know (USRTK). Which apparently now thinks Canada also has a “right to know” which academics should be publicly disparaged and demonized for daring to work with the group’s arch enemy — Monsanto.

Screen Shot 2017-05-12 at 10.09.18 AMBut USRTK can be effective only if it convinces journalists to participate in its scheme. And that’s often easy to do, given that many reporters are pressed for time, harboring their own anti-GMO sentiments, and not well-informed about biotechnology, academic research or more importantly, the tactics of USRTK

Here’s how it works: the Organic Consumers Association, which has a serious financial interest in destroying GMO food, gives USRTK the money to obtain emails through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. USRTK then presents the emails to a carefully selected reporter, along with a few juicy quotes. Once the article is printed, the anti-GMO channels trumpet it as “proof” that academics are a sleazy, bought-off lot whose research can’t be trusted.

In the case of Phillips, reporter Jason Warick of CBC News Saskatoon went right along, even leading with USRTK’s claim and identifying its director, Gary Ruskin, as a “researcher,” rather than anti-GMO activist, which would have changed the tone of the piece:

The University of Saskatchewan and one of its well-known professors are acting like “sock puppets” for agri-business giant Monsanto, says a U.S. researcher.

It wasn’t until the fourth paragraph that Phillips was allowed to dispute the smear, and by then, given the article’s sensational headline, its use of inflammatory outtake quotes and its overall “gotcha” set up, the damage was done.

And that’s a travesty, because in Phillips’ case, he’d done absolutely nothing wrong, ethically or academically. He never took any money from Monsanto, and even his critics agreed that he seems to “sincerely hold the beliefs he espouses publicly.”

Peter Phillips

As a journalist with more than 35 years in the business, I understand why this strategy is working. Most reporters, especially in these times of disappearing news sites and associated budget cuts, do not have the time or resources to request or review thousands of emails. When USRTK hands them a package, with the emails apparently providing sufficient “proof” of the claims, it seems too good a story to pass up.

But reporters need to question why USRTK is presenting them with this tidy bundle of “research.”

They need to scrutizine the funding source that paid for the email acquistion.

They need to ask whether they are being given the entire record, or just a cherry-picked selection.

They need to consider whether it’s appropriate to use the FOIA process to systematically attempt to discredit a certain segment of academic researchers, as USRTK has done.

They need to decide whether they are going to apply the same scrutiny to USRTK as they are to the group’s target.

Most importantly, they need to ask themselves whether they are being used as pawns to advance a political agenda.

In the article about Phillips, reporter Warick includes this comment from Ruskin, who gave him the emails and is heavily quoted in the piece:

Monsanto relies on these academics to spread their message to the public and to regulators, Ruskin said. Phillips and other professors should declare their Monsanto connections and stop helping corporations “hide their dirty laundry,” Ruskin said.

At its heart, this is about the public’s right to know about “experts” speaking and writing about our food system, he said.

Ruskin is using the media to do exactly what he accuses Monsanto of. Yet neither he nor Warick seem to grasp this irony.

Nor does Warick question the validity of Ruskin’s own role as an “expert” in speaking and writing about our food system.

Corporate influence on academia is a valid story. As is NGO influence on media.

Reporters need to exercise caution, lest they fall prey to the latter.

Because it’s more than a little disengenuous to claim an academic is “under fire” when the ammunition has been provided by a character assassin.

In science, should all voices count?

Cabbage damaged by diamondback moth caterpillars.

Though efforts are made to bring the general public into policy decisions around GMOs, I often wonder how much weight those lay views should carry.

That question came up again this week while I was writing a blog post about the ongoing comment period for a proposal to conduct open field trials of a genetically-engineered, self-limiting diamondback moth.

This project has tremendous potential to control — without the use of insecticides — an agricultural pest that inflicts an estimated $4 billion to $5 billion in global crop damage each year. It’s been carefully researched and planned, and the greenhouse and caged field trials have been promising. The next step toward commercialization is conducting open field trials in New York state.

The US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) previously approved the tests, but had to withdraw the permit due to its own administrative errors.

So now the project is again up for review, with APHIS issuing a preliminarily favorable environmental assessment (EA) on the trials and opening a 30-day comment period that ends May 19.

Academic researchers like Bruce Chassy, Phillip Mulder, Charles Arntzen and Nina Federoff, among others, submitted thoughtful comments that indicated they had read the EA and understood both the science and the proposal.

Unfortunately, many of the supportive comments were buried in an avalance of reactionary, emotional, non-substantative comments submitted by anti-GMO activists. It was clear that most of them had no idea WTF they were talking about, despite an overuse of caps and punctuation marks. To wit:


George Inashvili: STOP THE INSANITY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! DO NOT let them release GMO moths!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Georgia Braithwaite: NO NO NO NO NO.

Carol Neill: fake bees, fake trees – guess that goes with fake food? why can’t we have real food instead of the fake food that shortens lives or kills us? real food is healthier. real bees…

Amanda Meck: No! Stop messing with what is natural. First our food and now our bugs? Leave nature the way she intended to be!

Becky Noyb: If you guys could stop finding new stupid things to do that might kill the people you’re supposed to represent that’d be great.

Justin Holt: This something from a scientific horror movie. Please do not do this!!!

Patti Spinelli: This is a horrible idea….. except of course for the company that will profit off of it, while of mankind pays the price. Once they are released it cannot be undone. MUCH MORE studying needs to be done first. And then don’t do it.

In other words, no matter how much scientific evidence is presented, many of these commenters will not change their contrarian views. So what’s the point of letting them weigh in on a decision that is supposed to be scientifically-based?

Diamondback moth caterpillars feasting on crops.

Some of the commenters amusingly failed to detect the irony in their views:

Emina Bozek: I do not support this Field Release of Genetically Engineered Diamondback Moths. I think that our government is too excitable and quick to jump to extremes that have not been adequately vetted.

But most were just tragically ignorant:

ANONYMOUS ANONYMOUS: We do NOT want GE MOTHS released into our world…..EVERYTHING should be NATURAL NOT FAKE…..

Kimberly Waddy: The release of genetically engineered Diamondback Moths can potentially contaminate the food chain via transports of crops produced using this method of GE pest control.

Iragayle Konig: This makes no sense. We’re killing bees and they add to the viability of life. Moths do what, some contamination. We have man made concoctions that have a much more destructive impact than Moths. Sounds like it’s all about money, again!!!

Stacey Vila: I am opposed to utilizing genetically modified moths or other animals and insects into the environment. Generic modified beings are unpredictable in the long term effects. Concerns of impacts of life in each environment can be seen in those that have been utilized in the past. Evasive species and unforseen effects have occurred. GM salmon and insects released have produced problems that we should not ignore. Suggestions that I see that would be better is letting natural moths do the job. Let nature take care of it. Not the uncertainty of genetic modified beings.Add more real moths; not genetically modified organisms.

I’m not a scientist, but I think it would be terribly depressing to see scientific illiterates weighing in on my life’s work — much less think they could derail it.


Yes, the public does have a voice.

But what should regulators do when that voice isn’t based in knowledge, science or even reason? Should it be given the same weight as credible voices that have taken the time to educate themselves on the topic at hand? When the public voice is talking bubbles, should it be heeded, or even listened to?