Saturday, November 1, 2014

The raging GMO controversy on Maui

At the airport in Kahului, a young California couple was telling me how impressed they were with Maui’s lack of environmental problems and thought that California could learn something from us. They had been here for a week. So I had to say something.

I started with sugar cane. “Sugar cane is burned nine months out of the year. It’s not good for the environment and I know people who have eventually developed breathing problems or asthma after moving here. It’s cheaper to harvest cane this way and there are economic forces behind it.”

Maui may look beautiful on the surface, but we have plenty of environmental concerns.

“Then there’s Monsanto.” Maui and parts of Hawaii are a hotspot for the testing of GMOs, genetically modified organisms, also known as GE organisms, genetically engineered organisms. In Maui’s lovely climate, three seasons of GMO corn can be grown a year and we’re not sure what the environmental and health consequences are from the chemical drift from the fields or from GMO pollen in the air or other effects from this kind of open field testing. It’s a big, hairy issue that has upset a lot of people. Read this article for more background on the GE controversy in Hawaii.

Various photos of the GMO controversy: from the Maui County Farming Ban Facebook Page, the Shaka Movement site, and a pic of a Stop Monsanto stop sign I took.

I wanted to tell them about other problems: run-off from construction into the coral reefs and how taro farmers are upset about water from streams that is being used for big agriculture, but I stopped. I apologized to them. “We have our problems too, but as you know, there are a lot of wonderful things about Maui. They just don’t want the tourists to know.”

GMOs have been such a hot topic on Maui that thinking about them makes me kind of wince. I know people on both sides of the controversy, people who are vehemently opposed to Monsanto’s presence in Hawaii, and people who directly or indirectly benefit from Monsanto’s money.

For years, some Maui residents have pushed for the labeling of genetically engineered food, so that people can decide for themselves what to eat if they know what’s in the food. Several attempts to pass a GE labeling bill have failed. Opponents say GE labeling would hurt the food industry. The latest GMO battle is happening now, in the final days before the November election. It’s historic. The first ever citizen’s initiative is on Maui’s election ballot. Approximately 20,000 signatures were collected, requiring that the public vote on whether or not to enact a GMO moratorium. This moratorium would affect three islands in Maui County: Maui, Molokai and Lanai.

The stakes are incredibly high. Monsanto pours a lot of money into Hawaii’s coffers. There is a lot of propaganda and rallying, and Facebook activity pro and con on this issue. There are TV commercials and radio ads, youtube videos, and telephone surveys. There are rallies and marches and concerts and fundraisers.

There are three unattractive aspects of this media blitz:

1.       Hatred and fear. This kind of propaganda and anger stirs up a lot of deep feelings and self-righteousness, name calling. Fear is running strong on both sides. Fear of losing, fear of survival, fear of speaking up.
2.      Mistruth. The media spin is calling it a ban against farming in Maui County. It’s a temporary ban on GE testing, which could be recalled by a 2/3 vote by the Maui County Council.
3.      Silence and repercussions. I personally know a lot of small farmers who would be very outspoken against GMOs, but have been told clearly that if they speak out, their organizations will lose County funding.  

Core issues going on at the heart of the GMO debate.

The most predictable thing about controversial environmental issues is that the debate rhetoric is the same: pitting “jobs” vs. “the environment.” As if they are mutually exclusive. How about a world in which jobs and environment can be said in the same breath, and be on the same side? It doesn’t have to be one or the other, but the debate is framed that way, over and over again.

If we could take away fear of survival, how would people vote or act? It’s very hard to vote against one’s self-interest or one’s paycheck. If you’ve ever quit a job to step into the unknown, you know what I mean. It’s also very hard to speak up if one’s funding is on the line. You can’t expect anyone to act rationally or thoughtfully if survival is at stake. You also don’t get any good solutions when people are in this much fear.

If we could take away the hatred, how would people act? Monsanto, whether they know it or not, is actively hated on this island and elsewhere for past and present actions. There may also be hatred towards anyone who is believed to threaten the local economy or jobs. If we could convert hatred to energy, we could power the island. 

I have four brainstorming ideas:
1. Environmentalists are often accused of not thinking of the short term: the immediate effect on jobs or the economy. The changes in policy can seem drastic. If there is a solid, believable plan for immediate job relief or economic assistance, a safety net, during a proposed policy change, people will have less fear. Much easier said than done.
2. Put workers and managers from Monsanto, environmentalists, farmers, and county officials in Outward Bound programs together. They will not be allowed to talk about politics or religion but have to overcome obstacles and physical challenges together. There was a program that put Israeli and Palestinian children in summer camp. At the beginning of the camp, the kids hated each other, but over time, they started to get along, and by the end of the program, they were friends. In the short term, Outward Bound for adults won’t cause a lot of immediate change, but in the long run, people will be able to talk to each other better, because they will have experienced being on the same side.
3. Monsanto could change its reputation. Monsanto has a besmirched reputation which you can google. It could do something beneficial for the environment and provide jobs, like restoring damaged cropland or cleaning up superfund sites. Monsanto has a lot of brainpower and technology, which could be channeled to large scale agricultural remediation and regeneration, i.e., agriculture that improves the soil and environment.
4. Environmentalists, in a concerted and strategic way, could buy stock in Monsanto to influence how this company makes money. Individual investors who dislike Monsanto’s corporate policy would not be recommended to buy stock, unless participating in a venture that pools money from environmental investors to create corporate change.

Is there anything that Monsanto, county officials, and environmental advocates can agree on? I don’t think anyone wants to stop farming or put farmers out of business. I think everyone wants there to be enough food for people. I think everyone wants people to have jobs and a healthy economy. How to get there is where the disagreement is. In a way, I’m glad not to be on Maui right now while the debate is raging. No matter who “wins,” there are going to be consequences and more questions. The resentment around this issue is not going to go away until people really feel like they can talk to each other and the current debate isn’t allowing for that.

I’d like to be able to say to the California couple a few years from now, that Maui has found its own path to economic growth that is aligned with the environment, that it is doing long term, intelligent planning. A Maui with vibrant local farming which provides jobs and has unique agricultural products. The question is, do you have to completely start from fresh, or can you have a gradual shift emerging out of the old world?

“Man’s present technology is not a mistake – it is not possible to make a mistake – rather it is an extremely primitive precursor of the incredible organic technology that it is man’s destiny to construct/create in this universe.” – Paul Williams, Das Energi

Upcoming Events:
Made in Maui County Festival, this Saturday, November 8th. First ever event to promote products made on Maui (and Molokai and Lanai).

Dine Out for Hospice Maui, November 11th

Hui No'eau Wailea Food & Wine Festival, November 14th



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