GMO seeds grow into big fight on Kauai

December 30, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Seeds are big business in Hawaii, where large biotech companies develop genetically modified crops. Megan Thompson reports on a battle being waged on the island of Kauai by residents who say growing practices like pesticide use are hazardous to public health.
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MEGAN THOMPSON: The Hawaiian island of Kauai is known as the garden isle, luring hundreds of thousands of tourists to its lush northern shores. But fewer make it down to the drier southwest side, home to many native Hawaiians, who’ve lived here for generations…and where farming has always been a way of life.

Today these fields are home to large biotech companies developing Hawaii’s biggest agricultural product: seeds.  Genetically modified seeds, mostly corn, to be shipped back and grown on the mainland. 

MEGAN THOMPSON: Those fields behind me belong to Pioneer, one of the big seed companies here in Kauai.  The prevailing winds here blow out of the northeast.  And the residents here say that when those winds blow, they bring dust and pesticides from these fields down into their neighborhoods and homes.

And some believe that’s making their children sick.

RANDI-LI DICKINSON: In 2007 I gave birth to my son.  And within a day we realized he was seizing.  And we found that his brain had hemorrhaged and he lost the whole, entire right frontal lobe. 

MEGAN THOMPSON:  Six-year-old Nakana Dickinson still has frequent seizures, according to his mother, Randy-Li.  After consulting with a pediatric neurologist and blood specialist, she now wonders if all of her son’s problems were caused by the location of their home, in the valley just below the fields.

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RANDY-LI DICKINSON: And the only thing I could think of is I lived here this whole time I’m pregnant.  And I’m getting this drift of dust constantly with pesticides.

MEGAN THOMPSON: You don’t know for sure what the cause was of your son’s illness.

RANDI-LI DICKINSON: No.  And I– and that’s scary to me.  And I can’t know for sure because they’re not disclosing anything to us.

MEGAN THOMPSON: A battle has erupted here in Kauai over the seed farms.   More than 150 residents have sued Pioneer.  Though Pioneer declined to comment on the litigation, the families allege that dust and pesticides contaminated their homes.  They’re also seeking damages for lost property value. 

Thousands of others on the island demonstrated…

Hawaii GMO protest

This county council hearing is called to order.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  And packed county council hearings in support of a bill, passed just this week, imposing new rules on the seed growers.  It creates buffer zones around the fields and forces the companies to disclose what pesticides they’re using…when they’re spraying… and how much.

Several local doctors had expressed support for the legislation, citing serious health concerns. 

RICK GODING: There’s a strong anecdotal evidence that there’s a statistically significant difference in the incidence of cancer, asthma and birth defects.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  One pediatrician wrote in an email that he had observed rare heart defects in babies at a rate 10 times the national average.  But says years of epidemiological research would be needed to establish the cause.

GARY HOOSER: It’s really quite simple.  Tell us what you’re spraying, what you’re growing, and then let us do a study to determine whether people really are getting sick. 

MEGAN THOMPSON: Local politician Gary Hooser introduced the bill.  He got involved in 2008 after a noxious odor sent several children and a teacher at a school next to one of the fields to the emergency room, complaining of dizziness and nausea. 

GARY HOOSER: This is serious, serious stuff that deserves our attention and deserves to be dealt with now.

MEGAN THOMPSON: the seed companies and their employees came out in force to fight the bill. 

KU’UHAU GARZA: I want people to know that we are good people and we do the right thing.  

MEGAN THOMPSON: the companies said they follow government guidelines on pesticide spraying, and that revealing their farming practices could make them less competitive.  What’s more, as some of the largest employers on the west side, they said the bill’s other requirements could threaten their operations and the hundreds of jobs they provide.

Hawaii ag worker

CARMELITA HAUMEA: Most people on the west side is employed by the seed companies.  We all live as a community, you know. 

MEGAN THOMPSON: The four biotech companies in Kauai own or lease more than 12,000 acres – close to 20 percent of the island’s usable farmland. Their fields bump up against the nearby towns. 

Seeds are big business in the state of Hawaii, valued more than $240 million dollars a year; more than triple the second-largest commodity, sugar.  Mark Phillipson works for Syngenta, and is president of Hawaii’s seed trade group, which represents Syngenta, BASF, Dow and Pioneer, a subsidiary of DuPont.

MARK PHILLIPSON, HAWAII CROP IMPROVEMENT ASSOCIATION: The reason that we’re here– is the weather.  It’s– there’s no winter.  We’re here– 365 days a year.  So, can get three crops a year.  Whereas, if we did this type of research or production on the mainland, we would get one crop– per year.  So, something that would take– ten-to-12 years to develop, we can do here in three-to-four years.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  Phillipson says seed companies have developed better and stronger plants, genetically modified to withstand drought and pests. 

Today almost 90% of the corn grown in the United States is genetically modified…and according to one industry study, since 1996, the technology has brought an economic benefit of more than 24 billion dollars to America’s farmers.

KATHY HASKINS: This is a row of conventionally-bred line of corn. / And you can see that there’s a lot of damage here to the ear.  That’s all from ear worm.  This is the same line – same exact line of corn, but it’s got our “Agrisure Viptera” traits in it and you can see that there’s ear damage at all to this ear.  It’s beautiful. 

MEGAN THOMPSON: Even though the seed companies are only growing crops for research purposes, they still use conventional farming methods.  That includes the application of several so-called “restricted use pesticides” – chemicals regulated by the E.P.A. that can only be handled by people with a special license. 

MARK PHILLIPSON: We follow all the federal and state guidelines on pesticide use, and those guidelines are very strict and they’re– monitored.

MARK PHILLIPSON: We are very careful in how we apply the pesticides.  We, you know– measure wind direction, wind speed.  It’s– not of any advantage for us to have things drift out anywhere. 

Hawaii aerial

MEGAN THOMPSON:  Because of a new state registry on pesticide sales, and the lawsuit against Pioneer, some information on what’s being sprayed has started to come out.  But the seed companies, which invest billions of dollars in research and development, had been largely reluctant to share more specifics.

GARY HOOSER:  On the general use pesticides that you use on an annual basis, can any – are any of you willing to disclose that amount?  So I’ll take the silence as a no.

MEGAN THOMPSON: The people in community here have been asking for a few years now to know what pesticides are being sprayed by the seed companies here.  How much, when, where.  Why has that information not been disclosed?

MARK PHILLIPSON: The reason is not so much there’s trade secrets, but it’s more of competitiveness.

Fast disclosure of those pesticide use will probably tell me the ingredients that you’re using that I might not be using. We each represent a unique company that has a product in a competitive marketplace.

MEGAN THOMPSON: There are a lot of people in this community who say they’re getting sick.  And they think it might be the pesticides.  What do you say to that? 

MARK PHILLIPSON: Probably the first– people in the community that would get sick would be our workers.  And there’s no indication of that. 

MEGAN THOMPSON: Phillipson also points to a recent study by the Hawaii Department of Health showing cancer rates are no higher in Kauai than in other parts of the state…and other tests showing air and water samples to be safe.

But critics accuse the companies of not following spraying guidelines closely enough. Attorneys in the Pioneer lawsuit say this video they shot shows pesticides blowing off a field near town.  And even though many of the pesticides are the same ones used by farmers in the Midwest for example, critics point out they’re being applied during more months of the year here.

RICK GODING: How can you tell me I don’t have a right to know what they’re spraying?

MEGAN THOMPSON: And that’s why some residents including local doctors like Rick Goding believe more research is needed. 

RICK GODING: The thing about the physicians is, we want to be very careful.  And I think some of them are afraid to say anything because they’re afraid to be perceived to be saying, “They’re spraying, and therefore this is happening.”  I’m not saying that.  I don’t know any physicians that are saying that.

What we are saying is, they are spraying.  And we have some problems.  Can we find out more about what they’re spraying and can we look at the possibility as to whether it’s got an effect on some of the significant health problems we have in the community.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  Even though that bill requiring the seed companies to create buffer zones and disclose their spraying was passed this week … at least one seed company said it’s exploring legal options to block the legislation.   So it could be a long time before these residents get all the information that they’re looking for.

*Funding for this story provided by Pacific Islanders in Communications.*

UPDATE

A few weeks ago NewsHour Weekend reported on the debate surrounding genetically-modified seed farming on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. At that time the county council had just voted 6-1 in favor of a bill that would create buffer zones around the fields and force the companies to disclose what pesticides they’re using, when they’re spraying, and how much. The bill would have also required companies to disclose what GMOs were being used and produced by the growers.

Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho on Thursday vetoed the bill saying, “I have always said I agree with the intent of this bill to provide for pesticide-use disclosure, create meaningful buffer zones and conduct a study on the health and environmental issues relating to pesticide use on Kauai…However, I believe strongly that this bill is legally flawed. That being the case, I had no choice but to veto.”