The island of Kauai is so beautiful it can make you twitch. The great green slabs thrusting up from the central mountains look like they could be hiding another Machu Picchu; the island’s lush, rolling piedmont drops into beaches so famous for their waves that locals have been known to remove uninvited surfers with their fists.
But Kauai is also a place where you can see a guy dressed up as the Grim Reaper—black cape, flaming red death mask—standing by a major intersection with a sign that says “Monsanto Sucks!” It is an island where anger at giant chemical companies is so intense that Dustin Barca—a man who has been both a professional surfer and a mixed-martial arts fighter—ran for mayor on an anti-GMO platform in 2014 and didn't win, but did get 34 percent of the vote.
Tiny Kauai has become ground zero for the global debate over genetically modified food and the spraying of their attendant chemicals on cropland. It is a place where, for years, multinational agrochemical companies have developed the GM seeds that circulate around the globe, but kept their experiments secret from the people who live just down the road—especially their use of pesticides to test the resilience of GM seeds to chemicals. In recent years, over 16,000 acres of Kauai’s land have been leased to DuPont-Pioneer, Dow, Syngenta, and Beck's. The corporations chose Kauai because its tropical climate enables them to work their fields year-round. Company workers can plant experimental fields three seasons a year, which can cut in half the time it takes to develop a new genetically altered seed. They plant these seeds, then spray them with a wide variety of chemicals that are designed to kill weeds and insects. When they find food crops that can stand up to these toxins, they begin the process of taking them to market.
“For me, this is about the impact on our community, not on whether Doritos have GMOs or not,” Gary Hooser told me. For years, Hooser, a former county councilman (and thus one of the island’s highest ranking public officials) tried to extract information from the chemical companies. He has had very little success. “I have issues with corporations controlling the food supply, but that’s also not what this is about. This is about industry causing harm. I asked them politely, and in writing, for a list of the pesticides they used, and they said no, they were not going to give it to me. They were very polite on the surface.” The companies were not obligated by law to provide the information.
“For me, this is about the impact on our community, not on whether Doritos have GMOs or not.”
The people of Kauai feel they are bearing a chemical onslaught that their bodies and their beloved island should not have to bear. Between 2007 and 2012, records compiled by the Hawaii Center for Food Safety show, DuPont-Pioneer sprayed fields on Kauai with 90 different chemical formulations with 63 active ingredients, and sprayed from eight to 16 times a day, two out of every three days during the year.
Between December 2013 and July 2015, according to an independent and neutral fact-finding task force formed by the Kauai County mayor and the State Department of Agriculture, companies sprayed 18 tons of acutely toxic “restricted-use” pesticides on Kauai. Six of the seven restricted-use pesticides are suspected of being endocrine disruptors, which means they may cause sexual development defects in humans and animals, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Four are suspected carcinogens. And between them, the seven have been linked to, among other things, neurological and brain problems and damage to the lungs, heart, kidneys, adrenal glands, central nervous system, muscles, spleen, and liver. These are only the most toxic of the lot. Studies show that companies use the highly toxic “restricted-use” pesticides on experimental plots at 17 times the rate of farmers on traditional fields.
During this period, the scientific task force found, companies also used some 75 different “general use” pesticides—compounds like glyphosate and 2,4-D, which are considered “probable” and “possible” human carcinogens in their own right. No information was made available for how much of these “softer” chemicals were used.
If a genetically altered corn plant can survive these chemical sprays, the “resistant” seeds could be moved along the development pipeline. One day, this corn’s progeny might end up spread across the vast cornfields of Iowa, Nebraska, and Illinois. More than likely, the harvest from these plants could end up sweetening soft drinks, or feeding the hundreds of millions of cattle and pigs that supply the country’s bottomless appetite for inexpensive meat.
For the people who live on Kauai, however, the fight over GMOs and pesticides is just another chapter in a long struggle over the use (and misuse) of their land. They say the companies have refused to divulge what chemicals they use on their fields, and that when people complain to the companies, they get no answers. The Hawaii Department of Agriculture developed a "Good Neighbor Program" in December 2013, asking agricultural companies to share the type of pesticides used on their fields, but this was voluntary. By fighting even basic disclosure laws, the companies have limited any possibility of understanding what consequences their chemical sprays might be having on the health of the local community.
In the last few years, thousands of Kauai citizens have marched in protest of GMOs and pesticide spraying. Island residents pushed their county council to pass a bill—over the strenuous resistance of the chemical conglomerates—forcing the companies to disclose what they spray.
The vote was a profound victory for supporters of local control over land use—and a shot across the bow of some of the world’s biggest chemical companies. Yet within weeks, DuPont Pioneer, Syngenta, BASF, and Agrigenetics Inc. (a company affiliated with Dow AgroSciences) sued the county in federal court, claiming that local laws had no jurisdiction over them constitutionally.
In August 2014, a federal judge agreed with the companies: their farming practices were governed by state and federal laws, and could not be trumped by local voters. The anti-GMO forces appealed.
Things have not gone well for the anti-pesticide activists. On November 8, 2016, Gary Hooser lost his bid for re-election. Ten days later, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated the Kauai pesticide ordinance. “Each incident was like a gut punch,” Hooser said, vowing to continue the fight in the courts and in the streets. A small victory came January 30, when the Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee approved two bills that would expand a pesticide oversight committee; create policies for spraying buffer zones; and provide $3 million to take action on recommendations from the fact-finding report.
“This is one of our many Standing Rocks," Hooser said, "where corporate power and profit collide with indigenous rights, the rights of communities to determine their future, and people’s determination to protect their land and water.”
McKay Jenkins is the author of seven books, including The White Death and The Last Ridge. His latest book, Food Fight: GMOs and the Future of the American Diet, is out January 24.