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.