Public records show that for the past decade, mainland groups and philanthropists have carefully cultivated an anti-GMO campaign in Hawaii, arming it with money and training to execute a specific political agenda.
Kauai has been at the heart of this strategy, which employs nonprofit organizations that engage in political advocacy under the guise of “education,” thus skirting the scrutiny, transparency and accountability imposed on lobbying efforts. This tactic produces a movement that claims it's grassroots and broad-based, when in fact, it's a puppet of the national groups that fund its work and pull its strings.
As I've reported previously, much of this political advocacy in Hawaii has been funded by the Ceres Trust and the Cornerstone Campaign, which is bankrolled by the fortunes of two Rockefeller heiresses. Though founded as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Cornerstone functions only to disperse grants to groups active in the anti-biotech movement, including Friends of the Earth, Genetic Engineering Action Network, Organic Seed Alliance, International Forum on Globalization, Californians for GE Free Agriculture and Earthjustice.
In this post, I'll detail how money from the John Merck Fund — endowed by a scion of the Merck Pharmaceutical empire — has further bolstered this totally non-transparent political advocacy in the Islands.
Though activists were stirring up opposition to the transgenic papaya as early as 2004, the Hawaii campaign began in earnest in 2005, when California anti-GMO activists felt the sting of defeat. While two Northern California counties — Mendocino and Marin — made history in 2004 as the first in the nation to adopt GMO bans, three other counties voted down similar measures later that year. In November 2005, Sonoma County voters also rejected a ballot measure that would have made it illegal to raise, grow, cultivate, propagate, sell or distribute most genetically engineered organisms.
The losing ballot measure was written by Dave Henson, director of the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center (OAEC). His group had begun lobbying voters in 2003 through Californians for GE-Free Agriculture, an initiative largely bankrolled by the John Merck Fund and the David B. Gold Foundation. Both are significant donors to the Center for Food Safety, which has been a major player in the Hawaii anti-GMO movement.
Following the Sonoma County defeat, which spelled the death knell for GMO bans in California, Hensen vowed that supporters would “continue their campaign for sustainable agriculture and GE-Free organisms through other venues.”
One of those venues was Hawaii, where Henson was already cultivating a relationship with GMO-Free Kauai. On July 16, 2005, Henson hosted a one day training “to help spearhead and organize this very important effort to pass a county initiative regarding GMO's,” according to a post by GMO-Free Kauai president Blake Drolson.
That same year, the Cornerstone Foundation gave Henson's OAEC a $5,000 grant to host a GMO Free Hawaii conference, according to Cornerstone's 2005 tax return.
The ante was upped considerably in 2006, when the John Merck Fund started funneling money into Hawaii. The John Merck Fund began supporting anti-GMO groups in 1999 — the same year that Merck's Vioxx began competing directly with Monsanto's Celebrex. Over the next 15 years, the John Merck Fund awarded nearly $9 million to anti-GMO nonprofit advocacy groups, financing media campaigns that aimed to “increase public awareness of the negative impacts of agricultural biotechnology” and “reduce the market share of GM crops,” as well as other activities.
Locally, the Fund began financing a campaign to seek "environmental review and regulation ... of GE crops in Hawaii" — a goal that requires legislation. But the Fund channeled all its contributions to 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, which can skirt state lobbying disclosure laws — and public scrutiny — by conducting their political advocacy under the guise of "education."
Between 2006-2008, the Fund awarded Earthjustice $105,000 in Hawaii-specific grants aimed at stopping bioengineered algae research and production at NELHA in Kona; prohibiting the use of food crops in biopharmaceutical production, and phasing out open air testing of biopharm crops.
Hawaii SEED also cashed in during that same time period, getting grants totaling $75,000 for projects aimed at “halting the release of genetically engineered corn and taro in Hawaii, building resistance to Monsanto's corn seed production and protecting papaya, taro and coffee crops from genetically engineered production.”
By 2007, the Islands' anti-GMO groups were already tag-teaming their money, with Earthjustice bankrolling “Islands at Risk," a 30-minute film about GE crops and patented life forms that featured Hawaii SEED members Walter Ritte and Nancy Redfeather. Those attending the Oahu premiere were urged to bring “the newest leaf from your papaya tree to be tested for GMO,” thus helping to fulfill some of Hawaii SEED's Merck grant requirements.
In an interesting “coincidence,” GM Watch paired its January 2007 reporting on the film's premiere with an episode of student sickening that had occurred at Waimea Canyon Middle School in November 2006. An investigation by the Hawaii Department of Agriculture found no wrongdoing by Syngenta, which was cultivating fields closest to the school.
Nonetheless, in 2007 some WCMS teachers formed a group — variously identified on its own blog as Maluhia and Maluia — “in response to a complete failure of public agencies responsible for the regulation, monitoring, and protection of the public’s health and welfare in relation to pesticide use and GMO agriculture on lands adjacent WCMS campus.”
In 2008, the Merck Fund gave Maluia-WCMS $10,000 “to document health effects in Hawaii related to pesticide exposure and advance policy reforms that protect the health of children and farmers and build toward national comprehensive pesticide policy reform.”
So what did Maluhia do with its $10,000? I contacted the John Merck Fund to request a copy of Maluhia's grant report detailing the use of those funds. The Funds' program officers did not respond.
But the very specific agenda outlined by the grant may help explain why certain school personnel continue to insist that seed company spraying caused children to be sickened in 2006 and 2008, not the noxious odors emitted by stinkweed, as determined by state health and agriculture officials. They even managed to gain the ear of the Joint Fact Finding Group (JFFG) on pesticides, which actually called upon an anti-GMO activist to review — and, such a surprise, denounce — the state Health Department's conclusions regarding the 2008 incident.
The Merck Fund's 2008 tax return puts the WCMS grant in its broader context. The return notes that the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) North America was awarded $122,000 “to assist nonprofit groups in seven states that are documenting health effects related to pesticide exposure and advancing policy reforms …. and enable Californians for Pesticide Reform and the Maluia-Waimea Canyon Middle School to document health effects related to pesticide exposure and advance policy reforms that protect the health of children farmers and build toward national comprehensive pesticide policy reform.”
Clearly, the activities funded at WCMS were part of a larger effort with a decidedly political end: "national comprehensive pesticide policy reform.” That's why I wasn't at all surprised to see that agenda mirrored in the first-draft recommendations of the JFFG. After all, its membership is heavily weighted with movement followers.
Meanwhile, GMO-Free Kauai had been absorbed by Hawaii SEED. As I've previously documented, PAN also gave Hawaii SEED money to conduct pesticide drift tests in 2012. Though Hawaii SEED collected some 200 air samples on the westside, it detected trace amounts of one pesticide in just one sample.
Again, as I've previously reported, when Hawaii SEED failed to turn up any evidence of actual pesticide drift, much less harm, it launched a fear-mongering campaign, using scare tactics to frighten westside residents. According to the minutes of a Jan. 20, 2013 SEED Strategy Meeting “Pesticide: Breakout Group Report Back:”
The Hawaii SEED drift monitoring project is NOT yielding the kind of info to move this work forward. This project will be closed.
1. Collaborate with others who are testing for pesticides in water, blood, soil, animals (die‐off like urchins) and look for allies like surf riders, dept of fish and wildlife, health department. Strategy: pressure OTHERS to do the testing
2. Door‐to‐door or public surveys:
Target native hawaiians , moms, Ag. Laborers, middle class
Goal: Tell the story of epidemic sickness in Hawaii that may be related to pesticides. Use this as ammunition to pressure health department into addressing the effects of pesticides statewide.
Working group: Jeri [Di Pietro], Kawai [Warren], Mike [Broady], Dustin [Barca], Patty [Valentine], Lorrin [Pang], Brittany [Beers]
I understand unfounded anxieties and fears. I understand lying. What I can't wrap my head around is pernicious lying — deliberately disseminating disinformation with intent to harm others. There's a word for it — socio-pathology — but it's difficult to fully grasp. What makes people leap to that level of distortion? Power? Money?
And what makes people believe the lies? Even with all the money they've spent, and the testing they've conducted, these groups have been unable to document any pesticide harm to either people or the environment. Yet through fear-mongering, they've been able to spin a narrative that Kauai is one of the most polluted places on the planet, with the agricultural sector in grave need of radical reform.
In subsequent years, PAN has continued to fund the anti-GMO efforts on Kauai, including the Stop Poisoning Paradise website that it launched to boost Councilman Gary Hooser's anti-GMO Bill 2491, which was written by Earthjustice and CFS attorneys. It also recruited and funded “community activists” who testified in support of anti-GMO legislation on Hawaii and Kauai, without ever identifying themselves as paid lobbyists.
Returning to Henson, his work in the Islands continues to this day, according to the OAEC website:
Every January, Dave facilitates an annual gathering of GMO-free groups from each of the Hawaiian Islands, helping them craft legislative and educational strategies against GMO’s and associated pesticides.
Yet PAN continues to maintain that this heavily orchestrated, well-funded activism is an “all-volunteer, citizens’ effort” — a fiction perpetuated in the David vs Goliath rhetoric of Earthjustice, Center for Food Safety, Hawaii SEED and Hooser's HAPA.
In short, a very small group has been quite effective — though deeply dishonest — in carrying out a national strategy here in the Islands: Use out-of-state philanthropy and the nonprofit sector to make an end-run around campaign spending and lobbying disclosure. Then deploy your cause in the arena of the counties, not the state, because the counties generously allow filibuster-style testimony. That enables you to create the impression of an overwhelming majority, even though your numbers are tiny and padded with paid activists.
Sprinkle in plenty of fear, a dash each of anti-corporatism and agricultural Utopianism and voila, you've got the makings of a meltdown.
Which is exactly what we've witnessed in the rural communities and state Capitol of Hawaii, where folks have been played to the hilt, and most don't even know it.
But the money trail tells the story — for those who wish to understand how it is that groups in total service to the corporate-derived cash of the 1 percent can carry out the charade that they're furthering the cause of democracy, even as they actively undermine it.