Musings, etc.

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?