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GE Crop Debate Shakes Molokai

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Photo by Edwin Mendija.

A single initiative on the November election ballot has the Molokai community in such a heated debate that “vote yes” and “vote no” only refer to one thing: whether or not the cultivation of all genetically engineered crops in Maui County should stop while studies are done examining effects on human health and the environment.

The “vote no” campaign opposes the initiative, highlighting the hundreds of jobs on the line that could be lost in Maui County if a moratorium on growing genetically engineered (GE) crops goes through. Supporters of the initiative say they don’t want farming practices they believe are detrimental to land and people to continue without a comprehensive, independent study completed.

The resulting debate has ripped apart the Molokai community. It has turned friends into enemies, forced families to choose alliances and pitted neighbors against neighbors. Many feel the argument has been set up to ask the community to choose the economy or the environment.

Seed corn companies Monsanto and Mycogen — known on a larger scale as Dow Agrosciences — account for a large percentage of Molokai’s employment – about 250 jobs — and if the companies close or downsize, the blow to the economy and island families could be huge.

“The effect on Molokai is greater than anywhere else in Maui County,” said Molokai Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rob Stephenson, who opposes the initiative.

Yet with about 85,500 registered voters in Maui County, less than 4,000 of them are on Molokai. That means that even though the moratorium could have the greatest impact on Molokai, island residents won’t have as much say in the vote.

Despite that fact, Molokai residents are outspoken on both sides.

“It’s always been about my kids and their health, and safety of the environment where we live,” said Molokai mother of three, Mercy Ritte. “It’s about our island, as unique as it is, keeping it that way for generations to come.”

The Initiative

The group behind the initiative is the SHAKA Movement — which stands for Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and the Aina – a nonprofit of citizens who are concerned about the potential negative effects that GMO crops and the pesticides used on them could have on human health and environment. Its goal is to “place a new ordinance in the Maui County Charter to establish a Temporary Moratorium on the cultivation of GMO Crops, test crops and their associated pesticide use until industry funded and county administered safety studies are conducted and reviewed by the council and the public.”

The initiative calls for anEnvironmental Public Health Impact Statement (EPHIS) analysis of the impacts stemming from GE Operations and Practices and associated pesticides to be provided and reviewed by County Council.

The 10-page document states that “in Maui County, GE operations and practices include the cultivation of GE seed crops, experimental GE test crops, and extensive pesticide use including the testing of experimental pesticides and their combinations in what is effectively an outdoor laboratory.”

It also references concerns like the appearance of “superweeds” and “superbugs” that have developed resistance to herbicides or pesticides, as well as spraying various chemicals in close proximity, which it refers to as “pesticide cocktails.”

Satya Douglas, co-founder of the SHAKA Movement, said it has gathered more than 19,000 signatures in support of the moratorium, though they did not track how many of those names are from Molokai.

Twenty percent of the total number of voters who cast ballots in the last mayoral general election, or 8,465 signatures, were required to have it formally submitted to the council, according to a Maui County press release.

On June 6, County Clerk Danny Mateo announced that the SHAKA Movement had received 9,062 valid signatures, moving the initiative to the County Council for action. The council had 60 days to adopt the proposed ordinance, or it would be placed on the general election ballot for the public’s vote. On Nov. 4, voters will cast their ballot for or against the moratorium.

The SHAKA Movement’s website calls it the first-ever successful citizen’s initiative in Maui County.

The question relating to genetically engineered organisms that voters will decide on is worded on the Nov. 4 ballot as follows: “ Should the proposed initiative prohibiting the cultivation or reproduction of genetically engineered organisms within the County of Maui, which may be amended or repealed as to a specific person or entity when required environmental and public health impact studies, public hearings, a two thirds vote and a determination by the County Council that such operation or practice meets certain standards, and which establishes civil and criminal penalties, be adopted for Maui County?”

Those civil and criminal penalties can include fines against “any person or entity violating this chapter” ranging from $10,000 for a first violation to $50,000 for a third violation, with penalties assessed for each day of violation.

As written, it calls on Maui County Council to take action at various stages of progress, but Councilmember Don Couch has nothing but criticism for the initiative.

“It’s poorly written. One of the big things is that it requires a citizens committee to overturn anything, but it doesn’t say how to form that committee, what the makeup is, who appoints this committee, how long your terms are,” he said during a visit to Molokai several weeks ago. “It doesn’t say anything about the committee… That’s a huge flaw.”

Stephenson pointed out the moratorium could also last an unspecified amount of time, based on a number of variables and unknown factors not specific in the document.

But regardless of how long seed companies would have to suspend operations if it passed, Mayor Alan Arakawa said there’s no doubt the effect would be significant.

“The economic impact is clear – it would probably bankrupt Molokai,” he said.

Jobs on the Line

“Jobs are hard to come by on Molokai,” wrote Mycogen employee Samson Kaahanui on a mail-out paid for by Citizens Against the Maui County Farming Ban. “The work is not easy, but my wife and I still have six kids at home.”

As a former employee of Molokai Ranch, Kaahanui said he almost lost everything. Now, he’s worried it will happen again.

“If this farming ban shuts down the seed companies and I lose my jobs, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” he wrote. “And it’s not just us. We can’t pay for groceries, what’s going to happen to Kualapu`u Market? Can’t pay for gas, what happens to Rawlins Chevron?”

Paul Brewbaker, an economist commissioned by the Maui Chamber of Commerce and the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association to complete a report on the economic aspects of the seed industry, said seed industry jobs comprise nearly 10 percent of all private jobs on Molokai.

He couldn’t share Molokai projections specifically because he had signed confidentiality agreements with the seed companies, but did say that of the 650 jobs that would be affected county-wide, about one third are Molokai-specific, and about one quarter of the total are seasonal.

Latest employment numbers from Monsanto indicate the company has about 130 full-time and seasonal workers. The company owns 144 acres and leases 2,100 acres, farming from 400 to 600 acres a year, according to what they told Civil Beat in July. Mycogen Seeds has about 100 employees.

Brewbaker said the economic impact of the seed industry in Maui County is about $85 million.

“Right now, we’re at 14.1 percent unemployment,” said Stephenson, referring to Dept. of Labor data for Molokai. “If we lose 250 jobs, that’s an additional 11 percent of the workforce, gone.  That could bring us up to 24 percent unemployment.”

Stephenson said those numbers are proportionally equivalent to the immediate loss of 8,900 jobs on Maui, or 55,000 jobs on Oahu.

Ritte said while solid job alternatives have not yet been proposed, she said that’s a priority of the MOM Hui, a statewide grassroots nonprofit of mothers she founded to protect the health and wellbeing of their children.

“As a group, it’s always been a focus of ours to figure out job alternatives,” she said. “We can’t always be dependent on one entity. If they’re removed from the equation, the whole economy collapses… I don’t see how that’s a good thing to be so dependent on one entity.”

Elle Cochran, a Maui county Council member who introduced a county bill earlier this year aimed at regulation and disclosure of GMOs, said she’s ready to look at alternative jobs in agriculture.

“I’m more than willing to see how natural farming can be funded and incorporated at the county level,” she said. “We all talk about sustainability and this is a step in the right direction through diversification in agriculture and jobs.”

But Cochran is a small minority among the majority of Maui County Council members who say they oppose the initiative.

“I cannot support that. I don’t want anybody to lose a job,” said Council Chair Gladys Baisa, who said she’s watched both Del Monte and Molokai Ranch close on Molokai. “Until somebody can tell me how you guys are going to have an income and be OK and have benefits and what you need, I don’t want to even talk about it.”

The Ripple Effect

Some Molokai businesses get a large portion of their revenue from the two seed companies and their employees. Hikiola Cooperative has said Monsanto and Mycogen account for 50 percent of their business. Kaunakakai’s Napa Auto Parts owner Edmund Wond has estimated that number to be about 40 percent for the company – the seed companies buy all their tractor supplies and repair equipment from him.

“Both seed companies are two of our best customers and so are their employees,” said Wond. “If this takes effect, we’ll go back 20 years as far as the economy.”

Wond runs Napa with his son and the help of four employees. He’s told them they’re due for an increase in wages – but that will depend on the vote.

“You got a raise coming in November if it’s ‘no,’” Wond said he announced to them. “We’ll know by Nov. 5 if they’re getting it. I’m not giving it to them now because I don’t want to have to take it back.”

Wond was born on Molokai in 1928, when the roads from Molokai’s east end to Kaunakakai were dirt. Back then, he said the Molokai employment choices were the pineapple fields or a life in the saddle as a cowboy. He went with the latter.

Having watched the rise of the seed industry on the island, Wond said he sees good in genetic engineering.

“How many years have we been eating this stuff… I’m 86 and still alive!” he chuckled.

Stephenson said even businesses whose revenues are not directly impacted by the seed companies would notice the loss. With higher unemployment and fewer customers buying gas, food and even air transportation, the price of everything would rise.

“There’s not one business on Molokai that won’t be affected,” said Stephenson. “Every single thing on this island would change….”

But for local business person and owner of Kaunakakai’s Kalele Bookstore Teri Waros, that’s not enough for her to vote no; instead, she supports the moratorium. Though she acknowledges if that many jobs are lost, it would have an impact on the island’s economy as a whole, she’s not sure if that is the right price to pay for the long-term health of both the island and the planet.

“As a former Ranch employee, I take the loss of jobs very seriously,” she said, referring to the 2008 shutdown of Molokai Ranch that left more than 100 workers unemployed. “But for me looking at the big picture, at some point as human beings we need to look at the impact we’re having on the earth. We have a kuleana to our planet and our community – and yes, that might cost jobs in the short term.”

She added that she knows many employees personally but would like to know how many of the jobs are full-time versus temporary or seasonal — numbers Monsanto and Mycogen wouldn’t share with the Dispatch.

“I think the threat of job loss shouldn’t be used as rhetoric or coercion, and we shouldn’t give in to fear,” Waros said.

Shutdown or partial downsize?

Ritte said when she first heard about the SHAKA Movement, she felt in limbo because she didn’t want her community to be left without jobs. As she learned more from organizers of the initiative, she said she felt more OK about it.

“This moratorium doesn’t equal job loss,” she said. “They don’t necessarily need to shut down during this moratorium. They can plant the non-GMO seeds that they have and allow them to continue.”

About 10 years ago, Monsanto acquired Seminis, a vegetable seed company that supplies many garden catalogues, used widely by conventional and organic farmers. A report by the Rodale Institute estimates that Seminis controls 40 percent of the vegetable seed market in the U.S. and 20 percent worldwide.

“Monsanto has some of the best non-GMO vegetable seeds in the world… and should be looking at opportunities to grow non-GMO seed,” said Glenn Teves, a University of Hawaii Molokai extension agent through the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

Does the moratorium really mean shutdown? Neither Monsanto nor Mycogen has released a statement saying it would, and neither company would comment on possible scenarios, or what percentage of the crops grown on Molokai are genetically engineered.

But Brewbaker said if the moratorium passes, that wouldn’t leave much left to grow, calling the notion of continuing operations in such a scenario “crazy.”

“That’s like saying what are the possibility that Aloha Airlines will shut down because it’s illegal for them to carry passengers… seriously?” said Brewbaker. “You’re telling me that 0.3 of the company is going to keep operating?… My guess is… it wouldn’t be plausible.”

Brewbaker said nationwide, 93 percent of Monsanto’s seeds are transgene – a term he uses to specify the introduction of specific DNA, rather than genetic modification through natural selection.

In Stephenson’s opinion, the moratorium “isn’t temporary.”

“This is an absolute ban, this is a shutdown… you cannot expect any company to sit around for a minimum of 25 months and pay people just to show up to work,” he said.

But Teves doesn’t buy it, calling such rhetoric “scare tactics.”

“I don’t see this process as the end of Monsanto and Dow on Molokai,” he said. “They have to be held accountable and I’m sure they have adequate resources to accomplish this.  I see them on the island but [as] responsible members of this community.”

Farming Ban?

Led by the group Citizens Against the Maui County Farming Ban, an extensive ad campaign opposing the moratorium – advocating “vote no” — has called it a “farming ban.”

Supporters of the moratorium have called the campaign misleading, pointing to the initiative itself, which does not refer to banning farms or targeting small farmers.

“I have seen numerous commercials that started to make me think this bill is a ban on all farming in Maui County.  It’s not,” said Brenda Kaneshiro, owner of Molokai Meli honey business, in a testimony in favor of the moratorium. “It supports small farms like mine and perhaps yours.  In fact it protects us, our keiki, and our aina.”

The Hawaii Center for Food Safety also issued a statement favoring the moratorium.

“Despite the multi-million dollar ad campaign funded by Monsanto and Dow Chemical [Mycogen], this moratorium is not a farming ban,” the organization said. “Rather than growing food for local consumption, these companies are developing corn and soy varieties that have been genetically engineered to resist greater applications of their signature pesticides.”

But some Molokai farmers say the initiative would still affect them if it passes.

Kuulei Arce, along with her husband Andrew and their family, own and operate a seven-acre vegetable farm in Ho`olehua.

“For farms like mine, the prices we pay for water, fertilizer, equipment and other inputs would increase because the seed companies buy these things in huge quantities,” she said. “This allows their vendors, like the Hikiola Cooperative, to place bigger orders and reduce prices.”

She also pointed to the Molokai Irrigation System, which, though agricultural water preference is given to Homestead farmers, is used and funded largely by the seed companies, Arce said.

“Farming is hard enough as it is, and our profit margins are small,” she explained. “If it costs more for us to grow our crops, we may not be able to keep going. And that’s the last thing I want to have happen.”

Arce said she also believes farmers should be able to use all the available tools, including genetic engineering, to keep agriculture thriving.

“This initiative would treat farmers like they’re criminals and make them pay huge fines if they choose to grow certain crops,” Arce added. “Whether or not you grow GE, I don’t want to be told what crops to farm.”

Testing for Health and Environment

While trying to do their own research about the safety of growing GE crops, many residents have said that for every study that exists proving the safety of GE crops, another study points to the opposite conclusion.

Beekeeper Kaneshiro referenced national reports of honey bees dying in great numbers.

“Have you heard what the scientists are saying?  It’s due to the unsafe farming practices that include harmful pesticides and GMO crops,” she wrote in her testimony. “These farming practices have already had a negative impact on our small honey farm on Molokai.”

“I have my doubts that it’s 100 percent safe – I stand by the precautionary principal,” said Council member Cochran, likening the situation to the cigarette campaign that said smoking is safe. “I feel there could be negative impacts – let’s stop and make sure before it’s too late.”

But Brewbaker said nothing is stopping anyone from doing a study while the companies continue to operate.

“You want to shut down an industry to study if it needs to be shut down? There’s nothing to prevent it from being studied now,” he said.

A statewide study earlier this year was conducted by the Department of Health (DOH), in collaboration with the state Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Geological Survey. The DOH stated that in response to growing community concerns about possible impacts of pesticides on local communities and ecosystems, the state funded studies to test surface waters and sediments statewide.

Samplings were taken from 24 stream locations and seven sediment areas, testing for more than 100 different pesticide residues between December 2013 and January 2014.

Eight sites were selected on Kauai and Oahu, six sites on the Big Island, and two sites on Maui.  The study did not include Molokai.

According to DOH Deputy Director Gary Gill, every location sampled had trace detection of one or more pesticides, but the majority were minute concentrations that fell well below state and federal benchmarks for human and environmental health. Urban streams on Oahu had the highest number of levels of pesticides detected. Eighty percent of the locations found Altrazine, a restricted use pesticide. The seven sediment tests also found glyphosate, also known as Roundup, in all samples.

Teves is still doubtful.

“What about the chemicals they use to bombard the corn fields and what is the impact of their workers breathing pesticide laden red dirt every working day, getting it on their clothes and their body into their pores, taking it home into their houses, mixing it with all their family’s clothes in the washing machine, and exposing it to every member of their household, every day and week and year? This doesn’t happen anywhere else in the U.S. to the intensity it’s happening on Molokai,” he said.

Teves points to the chemical Heptachlor, which he said was sprayed on 17,000 acres of Molokai’s pineapple fields.

“Every time you cultivate a field, you kick up this stuff and mix it with the air in which we breathe,” he said. “Everyone needs a time out to assess what is going on and how we can make things safe.”

Ritte said despite studies done elsewhere, she’s concerned about Molokai.

“We’re such a tiny island, that even if you live on the farthest point, you’ll be affected,” she said. “What effect do these chemicals have on our Molokai soil?”

Waros said she believes there’s more than one way to farm, and she would like to see a study done that’s objective, transparent and accessible for the average person. She said she’s read the existing studies and doesn’t feel satisfied.

“I think there’s enough questions about these practices [by Molokai seed companies] that we don’t have the answers to,” said Waros. “I think we should know what’s going on on our island.”

Lorrin Pang, a doctor and DOH Maui County District Health Officer, is one of the SHAKA Movement’s key members. He said he thinks there’s still a lot that needs studying.

“In normal agriculture you might expect seven or so chemical pesticides being used,” he said. “In these GMO fields, they are using as many as 80 different chemicals and no one knows what happens when they mix in the fields or drift into the environment and combine. These combinations of chemicals need to be understood and tested for. If we don’t do it, the results can be devastating.”

What’s Next?

There are a lot of unknowns as thousands of Maui County residents go to the polls in two weeks to vote “yes” in support the moratorium on growing GE crops, or “no” to oppose it and continue the seed industry’s operations.

Jobs may be on the line for many, while others say the health of future generations is hanging in the balance.

As far as the future of agriculture, a lot will change if the initiative passes, but many have predicted that wouldn’t happen without a fight that would likely involve the courts.

“If we have enough water, we need to look at diversification into a special economy that the community is comfortable with,” said Teves, looking forward at the agriculture of the future.

But it’s too soon for many to look at the next step yet.

“Whether GMO is good or bad, the economic result is very obvious,” said Mayor Arakawa. “If you close down your major employer, there are going to be economic ripples throughout the community.”

If there’s one thing both sides seem to agree on, it’s advising voters to read the bill for themselves. It can be found on many websites, including at ballotpedia.org/Maui_County_Genetically_Modified_Organism_Moratorium_Initiative_(November_2014),_full_text.

 

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