Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Musings: Something Creepy

Something creepy is going on. And I'm using the word in both its literal and figurative sense.

What's creepy is the growing intolerance; the determined efforts to narrow choices and options; the suppression of certain Constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech and assembly, by PC police and other extremists. It's a troubling mindset that's creeping into so many different arenas, fueled by ignorance and self-righteousness.

Take, for example, news that the University of Ottawa has banned yoga classes — including one offered for free to both disabled and able-bodied students. As the Ottawa Sun reports

“Yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practiced," and which cultures those practices "are being taken from."

The centre [for Students with Disabilities] official argues since many of those cultures "have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy ... we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practising yoga."

While cultural appropriation can be a real concern, this particular ban ignores the fact that Indian yogis have traveled the world teaching this discipline to non-Indians. Some Indian masters have specifically adapted yoga to Western students because they want us to practice it.

But mostly, this ban smacks of totalitarianism, with a certain select few determining what is appropriate and then imposing that belief on others, thus denying them access and reducing their choices. Worse, these busy-bodies are coming from a place of moral self-righteousness that ignores their own unconsciousness and hypocrisy.

Another example can be found in the reaction of anti-GMO groups to the AquaBounty salmon, the first GE animal approved for human consumption. As Slate journalist William Saletan noted:

In the context of GE crops, the “right to know” argument is often used simply to stigmatize the GE product. By slapping a label on the fish, anti-GMO activists can scare away all the ill-informed people who say they wouldn’t eat such a thing. In the case of GE salmon, the activists are going further. Friends of the Earth says:

To avoid confusion in the marketplace, and ensure the consumer’s right to know, we are asking grocery stores, seafood restaurants, chefs and seafood companies to demonstrate their commitment to sustainably produced seafood and consumer choice by joining our Pledge for GE-Free Seafood, a commitment to not knowingly purchase or sell genetically engineered salmon or other genetically engineered seafood should it come to market.

That’s not a campaign to label the salmon. It’s a campaign to deny you access to the salmon.

Fundamentally, it's no different than the campaigns aimed at limiting access to abortion. Though most anti-GMO activists would consider themselves far too progressive to deny a woman's right to choose, they have no problem denying a consumer's right to eat. And they're just as fervent in their beliefs, and tactics, as the anti-abortion groups.

I can't help but think this growing intolerance is directly related to what one recent commenter so aptly described as “arrogant ignorance.” I see it expressed in comments that make all sorts of wild claims, followed by the challenge, “Prove I'm wrong.” These folks apparently feel no need to be informed about a topic before weighing in, and instead place the burden on others to disabuse them of their stupidity.

Sometimes, the ignorance and intolerance is due to commercial self-interests. I saw this in a recent email from anti-GMO fanatic Jeffrey Smith, who wrote:

I've been asked hundreds of times: What can I do to heal from the effects of eating GMOs?

I will host a brief conference call interviewing Dr. Zach Bush who will reveal new laboratory research showing how glyphosate--the active ingredient in Roundup and a big part of the danger from GMOs--can open the tight junctions between intestinal cells.  He will also show how a supplement called RESTORE can close those junctions--or even prevent them from opening in the first place.

Now Jeffrey Smith isn't a doctor, or even a scientist. But even as he blasts the FDA for approving an “untested, unsafe” salmon, he's hawking an unregulated supplement that supposedly solves a problem he invented and promoted.

And sometimes the ignorance can be attributed to self-promotion, shoddy media practices and plain old delusional thinking. A recent case in point is The Garden Island's “much ado about nothing” article. It all started when repeat visitor Jeff Pignona wrote a letter to the editor, wondering why the sculpture of an overseer on a horse was no longer part of the sugar industry memorial by the old Koloa mill stack.

TGI then ran a story headlined “Repairs Needed” that included statements from Teddy Blake, who said he’d visited the monument just the week before and everything was in place. After claiming he was single-handedly trying to raise money for repairs, Teddy elaborates:

We can’t figure out how this came about. But the separation is natural. We’re still trying to figure out the phenomenon which caused it to pop off the concrete. And, we still need to come up with the cost of repair.

Huh? Come to find out that sculpture was never even installed. Indeed, the space has been empty for 30 years. 

So WTF are TGI and Blake talking about? And why?

Those are questions we need start to asking more asking often as misinformed people attempt to impose their beliefs, world view, morality, ideology and delusions on the rest of us.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Musings: Reframing the Debate

With yesterday's approval of the fast-growing AquAdvantage salmon — the first genetically-engineered animal for human consumption — the door has opened for other GE livestock to enter the market.

And that means anti-GMO groups, which like to portray themselves as both green and kind, will be forced to reconcile their opposition with projects that have clear animal welfare and environmental benefits.

Because it's not just about Monsanto and RoundUp Ready corn any more. It's about livestock developed by public institutions — as opposed to easily-vilified chemical corporations — with traits that are hard to hate.

Like cows born that are born hornless, eliminating the de-horning process that both dairy farmers and animal activists hate. Cattle resistant to sleeping sickness, a disease that kills some 3 million animals annually in Africa, and requires large doses of drugs to cure. Poultry resistant to avian flu, which wiped out millions of chickens and turkeys in the U.S. this year. Pigs that can produce enough milk to successfully nurse their full litter, reducing piglet mortality. Cows and pigs that more efficiently utilize feed, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions and frees up land for other purposes.

As these “public good” projects start coming forward, the biotech debate will necessarily be reframed. Is it any wonder that the anti-GMO groups are desperate to stop them? They don't want to lose their cash cow — the fear-mongering, anti-corporate campaigns that keep donations flowing to their coffers.

Center for Food Safety and Food and Water Watch wasted no time in soliciting donations to wage a legal battle against the FDA, which approved the salmon after a 20-year review that cost AquaBounty some $80 million.

Heck, even Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has taken a few tips from her pals at Center for Food Safety, adopting the group's strategy of creating and exploiting fears about GMOs as a fundraising tool. In an email sent to constituents this week, Tulsi ominously warns:

huge agribusiness corporations hide their use of GMOs and keep consumers in the dark about what’s in their food.

It was followed by the big red CONTRIBUTE button to “Help Tulsi Win.”

Anti-GMO groups like Earthjustice and Center for Food Safety can win even when they lose if they sue federal agencies, because they can recover legal fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act.

In one case, Earthjustice successfully argued that it obtained "excellent results" — despite failing to secure the permanent injunctive relief it sought — and was therefore entitled to a "fully compensable fee." According to court documents, Earthjustice has submitted bills that included time spent on spent on clerical tasks, public relations, press releases, soliciting clients and other matters unrelated to litigation.

In some cases, legal fees in excess of $2 million have been awarded. 

If they file in expensive places like the San Francisco Bay Area, they get to charge fees that are the going rate for that market. Earthjustice's Achitoff, for example, gets to charge $400 an hour more in the Bay Area than he does in Hawaii. 

In one case, Earthjustice and CFS sought these “enhanced” hourly rates for counsel: Paul Achitoff, $650; Andrew Kimbrell, $650; Will Rostov, $575; Isaac Moriwake, $525; Greg Loarie, $450; George Kimbrell, $410; Kevin Golden, $410; Paige Tomaselli, $385; Kateryna Rakowsky, $350; and law clerks, $150. 

And we'll never know just how much these supposed nonprofits bring in from public donations to these legal campaigns, because they don't have to disclose.

Though it's generally accepted that corporations should be required to disclose everything, it's apparently OK to keep consumers and taxpayers in the dark about how much self-serving opposition is actually costing them in terms of higher food prices and government expenses.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Musings: Doing Good and Better

My last night in Manhattan was spent dining and clubbing — it's been a very long time since I danced in the strobe of a disco ball — in the old meatpacking district of Manhattan. My escort/friend, who grew up in NYC, said it was an area filled with criminals and danger when he was a kid. Now it's gentrified, trendy and expensive, as is so much of the city. 

Like so many others in so many places, he's been economically displaced from the place he once called home.
Earlier, I'd walked city streets lined with shops selling designer goods — luggage, crystal, clothes, shoes, jewelry, hats, handbags, chocolate. You name it, they've got it. But few of the stores had any customers, their clerks and doormen standing idle and bored. I'm sure some people must buy, or they wouldn't remain in business. Still, I couldn't help wondering who does support this ultra-abundance of luxury. Is there really that much big money floating around?
I cruised through the Frick Collection, an art gallery set in what was once a private mansion facing Central Park. It now displays works by Rembrandt, Monet, Manet, El Greco and other European masters. Many of their subjects were nobility opulently decked out in pearls, gold, silks and jewels. It's been 400 years since some of these pieces were painted, and still we have not lost our fascination with finery.
Speaking of big money, a friend sent a link to a New York Times article featuring houses that cost more than $1 million — one of which is located in Haena. The 1,524-square-foot house sits on two-thirds of an acre across from “Tunnels.” It's one of the most beautiful coastlines in the Islands, and almost entirely devoted to vacation rentals these days.

I got a giggle from the line, “It consists of one residential level, elevated from the ground for treetop views.” That's got to be the best euphemism yet for flood zone compliance. What caught my eye, though, was the mention of a “yurt next to a seasonal stream.” Hmmm. Guess you're never too rich to turn down the income from an illegal vacation rental.

And so goes Haena, yet another place in Hawaii where the locals are being steadily squeezed out by new big money.

Though I've often heard that New Yorkers are surly and rude, everyone I encountered was friendly and polite — right down to the TSA staff at La Guardia. 

After the security officer checked my ID, he looked me in the eye, and said, "Now I want you to promise me you'll do something amazing today."

"Well, I did give the cab driver a big tip," I said, and he laughed. "But I'll try to do better."

"Good," he replied. "Now you have a wonderful day." 

I went on my way, warmed and cheered, despite the news that my flight is delayed.

Money is useful, and necessary, and it can do good. Still, it's no substitute for the kindness and humanity that springs from an open, loving heart.

Promise me you'll do something amazing today.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Musings: Continental Drift

I'm here in New York City – my first time ever. I'd always been a bit intimidated by the prospect of Manhattan, but it's so easy to get around, and people are very friendly.

I've been walking, walking, walking since I arrived last night, carried along in a sea of humanity, traversing streets that are an iconic part of the American culture — Park Ave, Madison Avenue, Fifth Avenue, Wall Street — cruising through Grand Central Station, looking up at the glittering Chrysler Building.

Tonight the Cornell Alliance for Science has its big event at the United Nations, where some of the 25 global Fellows will tell their own stories. Joni Kamiya, whose father's farm was saved by the creation of the transgenic Rainbow papaya, is one of them. It's been a real pleasure to meet Joni and her family, and to see the positive, inspirational impact she's had on the other Fellows.

It's been fascinating to meet people from various nations in Africa, as well as the Philippines, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and the mainland U.S., all committed to doing what they can to end the hunger and malnutrition that plague so many on this planet.

Last night we walked over to the U.N. to check out the venue, and I was awed by the amazing view.
While taking the bus down from Cornell University yesterday, through the rural farmlands of upstate New York and Pennsylvania, cruising along past the office parks of New Jersey, I interspersed my sightseeing with a bit of web surfing. 

I was interested to read a piece in the Hawaii Tribune-Herald. Sen. Josh Green, one of those who has been so outspoken in opposition to biotech crops and ag pesticides, was all pissed off because the Department of Health wasn't doing enough — as in spraying and medical check-ups — to stave off dengue.

And why? Because it would be so bad for tourism if dengue gets established.

Interesting, how people change their tune about pesticide use when they've got something at stake. I haven't heard Hawaii Center for Food Safety screaming about the DOH spraying pesticides to control mosquitoes in residential communities on the Big Island.

I wonder how Green and CFS would feel about using transgenic mosquitoes, developed by Oxitech, to help eradicate dengue. When the transgenic males mate with wild females, their so-called self-limiting gene is passed on to their offspring, and the larvae die before they can transmit disease.

When I was at the Transgenic Animal Conference in Tahoe last summer — yes, mosquitoes are animals — I interviewed a Brazilian researcher who had experienced excellent results in field trials done there to control dengue.

While residents in the test areas were initially concerned, the researchers did extensive outreach, and addressed people's worries and fears. And when folks saw the positive results, they started asking for more releases, because they had experienced a direct benefit: people weren't getting sick..

The Oxitech mosquitoes were more effective at controlling dengue than pesticide applications alone — tests in Brazil and the Cayman Islands reported an 80 percent suppression rate of dengue.

Meanwhile, Jan TenBruggencate has an interesting piece in Civil Beat about the stinkiness of stinkweed, which can cause people to experience headaches, nausea, clamminess and other ill effects. His piece is aptly titled “The Malodorous Shrub That Launched Kauai’s Pesticide Wars.” As Jan points out:

In November 2006, students and staff at Waimea Canyon Middle School complained of a bad smell that made them nauseous and left them with throat irritation, watery eyes and dizziness. Many attributed it to agricultural spraying on a field next to the school.

The incident continues to be attributed by opponents of Hawaii’s seed industry to pesticide spraying, even though the initial field investigations by police, fire and independent botanical experts said it was stinkweed, a finding that was confirmed by a University of Hawaii study.
Photo by Jan TenBruggencate
This is one of the lies repeatedly told by Kauai Councilman Gary Hooser, Center for Food Safety and crappy journalists like Paul Koberstein and Chris Pala — that Waimea school kids got sick from ag pesticides, when in fact, Syngenta hadn't even sprayed those fields when the incident occurred.

Through their intentional misrepresentations, driven by their desire to stick it to the seed companies, they've drilled that bit of folklore into people's heads.

In reality, there has never been one case in the entire state of seed company pesticides causing school kids to get sick or be evacuated.

Though Jan's well-written and well-researched piece should help to set the record straight, as we all know, it's so much harder to dispel bullshit than it is to spread it.

And on that note, I'll leave you with this photo of contrails — not chemtrails — taken one chilly dusk at Cornell.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Musings: "Glamping" in Anahola

Can it be mere coincidence that The Garden Island has a glowing article on Kumu Camp today — just as the project goes before the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands?

Though the Anahola homelands project is marking its third year of operation, it's only recently completed an after-the-fact Environmental Assessment (EA), with DHHL planners recommending the Board today accept a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI).

Aside from issues concerning burials and archaeological sites, it appears the project has insufficient facilities for what is essentially an unpermitted, oceanfront multifamily vacation rental that can serve dozens of people — in the flood zone.
As a Trip Advisor reviewer noted five days ago:

There is a little red truck with a stove and kitchen supplies where you can cook food and eat meals. Each unit has it's [sic] own shower, however the bathrooms are shared with the entire campground. There is only 1 toilet per side, but generally it was never crowded. There is one unit where they offer Massage and Acupuncture. There are weddings, classes and events that happen here all the time.

To hear the newspaper tell it, Kumu Camp, with its 10 “high end” tentalows, two yurts,15 campsites and “mobile certified kitchen,” is all groovy. But that's because it quotes only representatives of its creator, the Anahola Hawaiian Homestead Association (AHHA).

Not everyone is so keen, including nearby homeowner Pat Hunter-Williams, who disputes both the FONSI designation and references to “Kumu Camp.” She asked the DHHL to use the area's correct name: the Anahola Sand Dune Burial site. In a letter to EA consultants, Pat wrote:

It's a shame the former Chair of DHHL broke the law when not requiring an EA Report as part of the application process and BEFORE any development took place. Because this was an after-the-fact EA Report, there was a GREATER need for the State Historic Preservation Office and Burial Council to have been consulted DURING the preparation of the Report and not relegated to comments at the conclusion.  The last sentence in your first paragraph intimates that HAD the EA Report been prepared BEFORE development, the Burial Council would have been consulted during preparation of the Report.

The Kauai-Niihau Island Burial Council did ask to be consulted while the EA was being produced, but its request was declined.  

Hmmm. We've seen developers take an after-the-fact approach to skirt the Burial Council, but this could be the first time that Native Hawaiians busted that same move.
Pat also questioned why DHHL beneficiaries, such as her husband, were not consulted prior to the project moving forward, and why construction of an above-ground waste water system was begun without permits, especially since one of the developers is Kauai Councilman KipuKai Kualii. The wastewater project has been capped since receiving a cease and desist order from the state Department of Health. I'm not sure when that occurred, but in March, a Trip Advisor reviewer noted:

What was important to us when booking was close to the beach, hot water and running toilets. We had all of the above. We were able to make our own food with their kitchen.

A January guest reported:

They were nice flushing toilets, but the women's was only cleaned once in the two weeks we were there and the men's about the same. The main restroom and showers drain into a septic tank, and men are asked to use the portapotty. Toward the end of our stay, the septic tank was nearly full and the camp managers warned us they were locking the bathroom doors to keep non-campers out, and were concerned that the tank would overflow.  

As Pat noted in her letter:

[T]he fact remains that the history of these developers is one of NOT following the rules of the lease - as documented over and over again in correspondence to HCDC from DHHL - and what could be characterized as a pattern of seeking permits / approvals / permission after-the-fact - when forced -  which does not engender much confidence that they can be held to their assurances [to cease operations and consult the State Historic Preservation Division and burial council should an iwi disturbance occur.]

Hawaiian Community Development Corporation (HCDC) is an Anahola-based financing conduit created and managed by Robin Danner. HCDC is the fiscal sponsor for AHHA. Robin also serves as vice-president of AHHA, and KipuKai is its president.

The project's website states:

All of the proceeds to Kumu Camp by the general public are designated to our nonprofit operation and hosting of Youth Camps throughout the year and the operation of our Internship Program.

Though TGI played up the youth camps, which sound like a good thing, how much of the revenue actually goes there, as opposed to”our nonprofit operation?” And not even youth camps negate the need to follow the law.

Pat argued in her comments on the EA that there is sufficient reason to require an EIS. As she wrote to planners following the FONSI determination:

The majority of the community was neither informed nor consulted prior to this development commencing and, I might add, prior to the DHHL permits being finalized.  I have repeatedly asked, since becoming aware of this development in early 2014, for copies of the Minutes of meetings held which community members attended. To date, I have received nothing.

Other concerns have been raised about plans to offer SUP and kayak rentals, and possible boat tours on the Anahola River. The website offers “surfing lessons & water activities” and catering by “our nonprofit Anahola CafĂ© & Saimin Stand.”

As Pat concluded:

[T]he use of the word 'pono' is definitely not appropriately - or accurately - used in ANY discussion of this development.

Others seem to agree.

As a September guest wrote on Trip Advisor: 

when we turned the sheets back we found stains and hair on the sheets and pillow cases and upon further investigation mattress cover and mattress were absolutely filthy!! The entire tent a low was filthy as well as the shower and sink with a left over filthy sponge for washing. Outside eating table unwashed and dried decayed food on deck and eating table..... Flies every where !!no lock on tentalows. We took note locals were using tentalows for the night and sneaking out in the morning ? This place is poorly run and cared for..would not recommend it for safety or your health!!!

An August guest was similarly disappointed:

We arrived at this place not expecting it to be anything fantastic and were prepared to rough it a little bit. However, when we arrived we found no gas for the hot water, out of order signs on the toilets and unlockable doors on the tentalows. 'Glamping' this was not. For these reasons we decided to leave and get accommodation elsewhere. It was a little bit disappointing given the nice beach location. If the owners put some money into the place and built some proper cabins they would make a killing.

As was a guest who had July reservations:

When we arrived around 9 pm there was no one there to check us in and no one answered the phone. We were stranded on our first night in Kaua'i. My family and I had to scramble to make other accommodations for our stay last minute, under the gun. Kumu Camp not only didn't answer the phone that night, they never attempted to contact me at all to see if we made it somewhere else or to apologize.

A January guest had mixed reviews:

There were many wonderful aspects of our experience at Kumu Camp: seriously, we were just feet from the beach; the sound of crashing waves 24/7; a great deck to call our own whether it was cocktail hour or coffee time; our own shower; flushing toilets; a comfortable bed; great access to town and restaurants as well as many hikes and beaches; and a quiet, low-key campground.

The reality was that the "kitchen" is an old food truck that did not have lighting (so when you went inside, you needed to bring your headlamp or lantern); and was pretty unclean. There was a lot of old food in there and mice were getting into some hamburger buns that were there (the buns and the mice) our entire stay. Initially, there was only one or two old pots and there were utensils. About four days into our stay, a set of new pots and pans appeared because someone complained. (Not us, as we accepted the status, and planned our meals around our equipment.) The outdoor barbecue grill was deeply crusted by burned food and the only thing we put on there was a pot for water our first morning.  

It may be Hawaiian Homes, but that doesn't mean anything goes. Especially since a Kauai Councilman is involved.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Musings: From Anti to Advocate

I recently received an email from a North Shore Oahu woman, who wrote:

I've been reading your blog for a while and today I read your "Seed of Doubt" article. It struck me as being anti-GMO, but your recent writings seem to support GMO.

I'm pro GMO, or more specifically, pro ALL Ag in a state where it seems we're losing the battle to try to have DIVERSIFIED Ag. I grew up on Waialua Plantation on Oahu and am trying to preserve our agrarian way of life. May be a losing battle. We have many of same issues as North Shore, Kauai.

My question is this: Am I correct in my assessment that you started out anti-GMO and have now become pro-GMO? What changed your mind?

It seems an apt time to publicly respond to her inquiry, since today I'm on the beautiful campus of Cornell University, a visit that represents the culmination, in many ways, of my transition from an anti to an advocate.
And by that I mean an advocate of science-based decision-making, of giving farmers a choice, of retaining access to every tool in the box to respond to the challenge of feeding billions of people in a changing climate. For Hawaii specifically, it means an advocate of agriculture Because despite all the idealism about feeding ourselves, the reality is this: the seed companies are the core of ag in the Islands.

When I wrote “Seed of Doubt” in April 2009, I thought I knew a lot about biotechology. I was proud to be the first Hawaii writer to cover the topic in any depth, starting with “Who Grows There?” — which included a cringe-worthy (editor-selected) image of a tomato being injected with a syringe — in Honolulu magazine. I thought the anti-GMO sources I quoted were credible people with the best interests of the Islands at heart.

But in 2013, everything began to change. Vandana Shiva and Andrew Kimbrell came to Kauai to call for the expulsion of the seed companies, and I saw a large crowd of mostly North Shore haoles transfixed by the revivalist rhetoric into a stuporous state. 

Councilman Gary Hooser introduced his pesticide/GMO regulatory Bill 2491, telling me it didn't matter if the bill was ever enforced, only that it passed. 

As a beekeeper, I participated in a tense panel discussion that was supposed to be about the impacts on pollinators, but was clearly intended to be a takedown of the seed companies. And I experienced my first pummeling on social media when I demanded that panel organizer Jimmy Trujillo honor his promise to other panelists not to videotape the event.

In the course of just a few short months, I saw the social and political climate on Kauai dramatically shift. Hooser had begun the year calling for a “million little fists” to start pounding, and people seemed only too happy to oblige, disrupting meetings, shouting down state officials, aggressively bullying non-believers on social media, stifling debate and discussion through an atmosphere of intimidation and fear.

Over the years I'd attended hundreds of meetings, on all the islands, and I'd never seen or experienced anything like it. It felt like everything I'd ever read about the brown shirts, the Red Guard. It felt creepy, and sinister, like the birthing of a mob mentality, the kind of mindset that had led to pogroms in Germany. It felt nothing like civility, nothing like aloha.

Who are these people? I often wondered. Some were new faces, newcomers; others were people I'd known for years showing an intolerant, ignorant, self-righteous side.

I recall one Kauai County Council meeting, where the red shirts — the anti-GMO advocates supporting Bill 2491 — were on one side of the county building lawn and the blue shirts — the seed company and ag workers who opposed the bill — were on the other. I was absolutely stunned by my visceral reaction to the scene. The red shirt side felt, frankly, repellent: grasping, sanctimonious, unsmiling. The blue shirt side felt, frankly, welcoming: warm, laughing, smiling. And yes, one side was almost entirely white, and the other side almost entirely local.

But what really shifted me emotionally was reading letters to the editor and listening to testimony that portrayed the seed workers as uncaring monsters, defilers, people to be avoided in grocery stores because they might be contaminating others with poisons on their clothes. They were repeatedly characterized as folks who had no aloha for their neighbors or the aina, and either cared only for money, or were duped by their bosses.

It was shocking and deeply disturbing to watch the primarily haole anti-GMO movement turn locals and immigrants into The Other.

My heart went out to them. And once my empathy was aroused, I began to question what I thought I knew about biotechnology and the people who so vigorously opposed it. I began to read and study. I also began to delve into the anti-GMO movement — its funding, its MO, its players, its agenda.

As I learned more, I gained a greater grasp of the complexity of the subject — scientifically, politically and socially. I discovered the so-called good guys weren't so noble as they pretended, and the so-called bad guys weren't as evil as they 'd been portrayed.

Mostly, I began to understand that in Hawaii, support for the seed companies doesn't mean blanket support for Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, DOW, DuPont Pioneer and all their business practices all over the world. It means support for the perpetuation of agriculture. Period.

The seed fields are keeping the irrigation systems open, the ag workers employed, the land in production. One day they may leave; one day Hawaii may grow more of its own food. But until then, they're far and away the most productive aspect of agriculture in the Islands, and despite all the claims to the contrary, we've seen no evidence that their practices are any more harmful than the other industries that support Hawaii's economy.

I also learned that biotechnology isn't just Monsanto and Roundup Ready soy and corn. There's a whole other world in the public sector that is working to improve the disease-resistance and productivity of small, indigenous crops that are crucial to farmers in the developing world. Other public researchers are striving to improve animal welfare, and reduce the environmental impact of livestock and crop production.

I've met many of them, and I've invariably found them to be good, caring, conscientious people who are earnestly striving to make the world a better place. They're typically bewildered by the antipathy that so often greets their work — antipathy generated by those who either do not understand the science, or are trying to distort it to achieve their own political and social objectives.

Along the way, distraught and distressed by what's happened — and is still happening — around biotech in Hawaii, I heard about the Cornell Alliance for Science, which was founded just last year. Funded with a $5.6 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, it's dedicated to improving science communications, ensuring that farmers have access to agricultural technology and depolarizing the biotech debate.

I reached out to its director, Sarah Davidson Evanega, seeking tips on how to heal Hawaii. I found a sympathetic ear in someone who had seen a similar steamroller smash biotech in Thailand, leaving the populace polarized, confused, shaken and afraid. Just like what happened in Hawaii.

For the last nine months I've been doing communications contract work for the Alliance, which has deepened my understanding of both the science and the movement that opposes it. I've also gained an awareness of the international implications of this struggle, and they're huge.

That awareness was heightened by my interaction with the 25 Alliance for Science Global Fellows, most of whom come from nations that are struggling to feed their populace. Their stories of poverty, hunger, crop disease, subsistence farms and the reality of food insecurity moved me, and caused me to ponder more deeply the morality of an anti-GMO movement grounded in affluence and privilege.

Two Fellows from the U.S. summarized my own views when they said:

We're not just talking about American consumers here that have plenty to eat. We're talking about people in food insecure regions who have nothing to eat but a small handful of rice every day.

Access to biotechnology is really a social justice issue. It shouldn't be an issue of white people in the west making public policy for other nations.

The Fellows are graduating from their 12-week course tonight, and I'm here to offer my congratulations and support as they return home, armed with solid knowledge about science, biotechnology and effective communications that will help them guide and inform this ongoing debate.

One of them is Joni Kamiya Rose, the Hawaii Farmers Daughter who was one of the first to raise her voice in opposition to the anti-GMO movement in the Islands. She's a local girl who saw her family farm escape ruin thanks to the papaya that was genetically engineered at Cornell, by Big Islander Dennis Gonsalves, to resist the devastation of the ringspot virus. As Joni quips, “And it all started because I got mad.”

For me, it all started because I got mad and sad — about the fear-mongering, the celebration of ignorance, the bullying, the rending of my community, the polarization that still lingers.

But now, I'm neither mad nor sad, just excited about all the doors that have opened, the horizons that have broadened, simply because I was willing to open my mind and question some deeply-held, and ultimately false, beliefs. This process of reflection and correction feels good, and right — integral to being a thinking, caring being.  

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Musings: Doomed to Repeat

It's story time.

And as certain folks try to re-tell the tale of Bill 2491 — the GMO/pesticide regulatory measure passed by the Kauai County Council, vetoed by the mayor, overridden by the Council and overturned in court — we're getting some revisionist history.

First up is Jennifer Ruggles, a Big Island wahine (paid by the California-based Pesticide Action Network) who was on Kauai for all of four months while the shit was going down. Yet she's now positioned herself to give a talk at the University of Hawaii-Hilo, where she promises to tell “the riveting story of the movement that lead [sic] to the 2013 largest march in Kauai history in the struggle against GMO pesticide poisoning.” 
Jennifer is seriously truth-challenged. In a youtube video that she posted, Jennifer makes numerous wild claims, including:

The seed companies use 72 tons of pesticides annually; they're taking up all the land so farmers who want to grow food can't get any; westside residents filed a class action suit against DuPont Pioneer over two cases of pesticide poisoning at Waimea Canyon School; the westside has 10 times the national average of a certain heart birth defect; and DDT is "used by GMO companies.” 

Not one of those claims is accurate. But like Center for Food Safety's Ashley Lukens, Jennifer sure knows how to spin for dollars: Send more donations, please, and we'll tell you more BS.

Meanwhile — and such curious timing! — Councilman Gary Hooser has also come out with his own version of events surrounding 2491, in which he not surprisingly tries to position him in the best possible light. In a recent blog post that he has titled "an almost complete history of Bill Nov. 2491," he links to various videos featuring himself pontificating and politicking, as well as Chris D'Angelo's crappy reporting on the issue.

Gary also links to minutes and videos of Council meetings that led to passage of the bill in less than four months, in the wee hours of the morning, after a marathon 18-hour session, as a mob threatened to overrun the Council and a group led by former Councilwoman Lani Kawahara and others screamed outside the chambers.

It's all here, on video. Go back and look at the section of that meeting that begins at 17:49:00, just in case you're forgotten how very ugly things got — with Gary's encouragement and endorsement.  Why, he even went so far as to say:

I don't blame the audience for getting riled up. I really don't.

Yeah, because that's precisely the sort of fistee action that Gary has promoted throughout this process.

Gary also said, after the vote was taken to pass Bill 2491:

I'm not happy with a lot of the bill, but we got two things the industry fought: the right to know... and the empowerment of our community. We have set an example here for other communities.

And what kind of an example was that? That bullies prevail? That ignorance rules? That special interest groups can disrupt small communities to achieve their own political ends? That a poorly written and hastily passed bill won't pass the legal sniff test? As for the right to know, that was achieved through a voluntary agreement between the companies and the state, not Bill 2491.

Yet his self-serving post won praise from someone named Sharry Douglas, who left this comment:

Wow! It’s insane when you see just how long there has been- not just stalling- but blatant sabotaging of a bill that wants to be passed, so it can do what it was created to do: allow us to be informed, so we can make healthy choices. Gary thank you for ALL that you do and for summarizing your long and challenging journey on our behalf!

Gag. Of course, those of us who lived it know this movement has never been about information, much less allowing people to be informed, which is why it's achieved neither. Rather, it's been almost entirely about blatant, intentional disinformation and fear-mongering, where it has excelled.

As the adage goes, those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. 

And those who learn it wrong, or spin it to achieve their own ends, doom the rest of us to a re-enactment of their stupidity — unless we speak up and tell it like it is.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Musings: Going South

I awoke, still tired, as the sky barely brightened, and my first tendency was to roll over, go back to sleep, but I knew the planets were out there, up there, and I had to see them, which I did, brilliant against the blue-black of the pre-dawn east, arrayed today in a diagonal line, an arrow with sparkling Venus as its tip; then Mars, a faint red dot; the smoldering white coal of Jupiter, and at the bottom, the moon, slim sliver of light cupping the dark of the whole.

Stars spattered the sky, taking my thoughts back to The Martian, the film I watched last night. It was unique in its celebration of intelligence, of science, as a stranded astronaut — Matt Damon — uses his vast knowledge of math and science to make water, grow food, generate power, build shelters, survive.
Image by Roth Ritter  
It had no product placements, save for NASA and Jet Propulsion Labs, and ended with a hopeful scenario: the U.S. and China cooperating on a mission to explore the “final frontier.” So is space exploration ultimately a unifying tool? Because out there, neighborhoods and nations, race and religion, become meaningless; Earthling is the only demographic designation that matters.

Though it had all the markings of a Hollywood blockbuster — soaring score, dramatic tension, masterful special effects, plucky hero, happy ending — it departed from the norm in delivering a message that was consistent and clear: Without math and science, you're dead.

It also slipped in some not-so-subtle commentary on the food and energy issues that currently plague the planet.

For instance, after the Matt Damon character deliberately digs up the spacecraft's ditched radioisotope thermoelectric generator — “the big box of plutonium” — knowing it could kill him, but desperate for heat, he notes:

And sure, I could choose to think about the fact that I'm warm because I have a decaying radioactive isotope riding right behind me. But right now I got bigger problems on my hands.

When he returns to Earth, and a career as a survival instructor, he begins by telling the young astronaut hopefuls:

Yes, I did in fact survive on a deserted planet by farming in my own shit. Yes, it's actually worse than it sounds. So, let's not talk about that ever again.

His point is obvious: Yes, the ancient ways of farming did work, and still will in a pinch. But there's more than one reason why people stopped collecting “night soil” and applying it to their fields, so let's stop idealizing traditional agriculture.

At another place in the movie, he observes:

They said that once you grow crops somewhere, you officially "colonized" it. So, technically, I colonized Mars.

It made me think about the natural process of colonization in which seeds, carried by birds, drifting on ocean currents, floating on the wind, take hold in different surroundings, sometimes dominating, crowding out, that which was already there, cross-breeding, perhaps, ultimately evolving to adapt to the conditions of the new environment. 

It's a process that's repeated as well by animals of all kinds (of which are one) — sometimes with devastating consequences. Yet it's part of the seemingly inevitable, and unceasing, mixing of life that fosters the genetic diversity that is the hallmark of a healthy species, a healthy ecosystem. Life, in all its many forms, is an unending work in progress.

The hero goes on tell his students:

This is space. It does not cooperate. At some point, everything's going to go south on you. Everything's going to go south and you're going to say "This is it. That is how I end." Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That's all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next.

And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.

Though we forget it most of the time, this blue-green sphere we call home is traveling in space. At various times in its history, cataclysmic events have taken place. And once again, it seems that in so many ways, everything is going south.
Can we problem-solve our way out of it? 

Do we have any other choice?

Because we aren't going back; we're somehow going forward.

While many seem to relish the notion of a postmodern apocalypse, with its enforced simplicity, I've studied enough history, seen enough poor rural communities, to disabuse myself of the romanticism of eking out an existence. Homo sapiens have striven always to go beyond mere survival.

Yes, we need to know, understand and honor the ways of the past, the building blocks of our survival. But we can't turn our back on science, silence the scientists, allow the fearful and ignorant to define a conversation they aren't equipped to lead.

Because at this point in our evolution as a species, it does seem quite literally true: Without math and science, we're dead.