The US State of Hawaii, 4,000 kilometres from the mainland, has long been a major test site for new crop varieties and parent lines, both requiring above average pesticide use. This has exposed local populations to higher than average levels of dangerous chemicals. Many studies have claimed to find links between high pesticide use and the incidence of diseases such as cancer and Parkinsons disease, but these have never been proved conclusively. Marianne Landzettel has been to Hawaii and reports on a potentially landmark victory for anti-pesticide campaigners.


On 13 June, while Europeans were off to bed, Hawaiians got up and onto social media to start the count down for a new law about to take effect. Donning a blue and white Hawaiian shirt, Governor David Ige signed Senate Bill SB3095 and made the use of chlorpyrifos, a neurotoxic pesticide, illegal in the state of Hawaii. The bill also mandated a 100 foot (30 metre) no spray zone for particularly toxic chemicals, known as RUPs (Restricted Use Pesticides), around schools during school hours, and agrochemical companies now have to report regularly on which chemicals they use, where, when and in what quantities.

To a European reader that may seem like much ado about not a lot, a 100 foot buffer zone isn’t exactly generous and chlorpyrifos sales were banned in the EU in 2008. For Hawaii, however, this law is huge. It is the first state in the US to outlaw chlorpyrifos; many Hawaiians live in close proximity to the test sites of agrochemical companies and are exposed on a regular basis to a range of different pesticides and herbicides.

Agriculture on Hawaii has little to do with food production – 80% of its food is imported. Much of the land that could be used for growing food is owned or leased by big agrochemical companies: Monsanto, now subsumed into Bayer, Syngenta – under the auspices of Hartung Brothers Inc. – Dow Chemical and DuPont Pioneer. These companies came to Hawaii during the 1990s, when the biotech boom coincided with plantation agriculture shifting from Hawaii to the Caribbean islands, where pineapples and sugar cane can be grown more cheaply. The Hawaiian Islands may conjure up images of palm fringed beaches, big surf and Mai Tai cocktails enjoyed watching the sunset, but the isolated location, almost 4,000 km off the US coast, fertile soils, and a tropical climate that allows for three harvests in a year, make Hawaii an ideal environment for what agrochemical companies need to do: test crops and produce mother lines for GM and conventional hybrid seed production.

Test site

Finding their test sites is not easy, you have to venture far off the tourist routes, drive along dirt tracks, hike until big signs warn you that trespassers will be prosecuted or razor wire fences block your path. Contacting the agrochemical companies on Hawaii is also difficult. They are represented by HCIA, the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, and interview requests are dealt with by a PR firm which stops replying to your emails once it’s established that you are an independent journalist and not writing for the industry. Only Monsanto takes a different approach and offers farm tours on request. For my visit, no fewer than three Monsanto staff flew from Honolulu to the neighbouring island of Maui, where Monsanto owns several sites. Monsanto sells about 1000 different hybrid GM and non-GM seed varieties worldwide, explains Dr Michelle Starke, Science and Environmental Outreach Lead. On Maui, Monsanto breeds the parent lines, Starke says, and on the neighbouring island of Molokai large quantities of parent line seed are grown and then shipped to Monsanto’s contract farmers, who grow the hybrid seeds that will then go on sale. She says Monsanto does use small volumes of pesticides in their operations on Hawaii. Exactly what that means though wasn’t clear, and a small amount of a very concentrated pesticide can be just as harmful as a large amount of a less concentrated formulation.

Until Governor Ige signed SB3095 into law it was almost impossible to find out what pesticides companies used where and in what quanties. The only available data were the monthly sales figures for Restricted Use Pesticides (RUPs) like paraquat and atrazine, both of which have been banned in the EU for years. Former Hawaii State Senate Leader Gary Hooser calculated that on Kauai, an island slightly smaller than the Isle of Skye, over 16 tonnes of RUPs were sprayed in one year alone. Add to that unknown quantities of non-restricted pesticides like glyphosate and dicamba.

Why do the agrochemical companies on Hawaii need such huge amounts of pesticides? It was a question I put to Hector Valenzuela, crop specialist at the University of Hawaii and to Dr Lorrin Pang, endocrinologist, public health specialist and long time WHO consultant. Parent lines must strongly express the desired traits – like high yield or kernel size or dwarf-sized stems. As the plant puts all its ‘energy’ into producing that one trait, other traits, like resilience, will not be expressed as strongly, and the plants are likely to be weak and susceptible to disease. Genetically modified plants show resistance to the modification, similar to that of a human body after an organ transplant. An additional stress factor is the tropical climate: maize does not like hot and humid conditions, and for plants to thrive they have to be strong and disease resistant – which prospective parent plants are not. That’s why prior to seeding or transplanting, the soil of the test fields is treated with fungicides, herbicides and pesticides to render it almost sterile.

For the agrochemical companies doing so makes sense: it takes about five generations to establish whether the desired trait is stable and reliably expressed, and only then does the company have a parent line. With three harvests in a year the crop specialists can test in a year and a half what would take them five years in a more moderate climate. In addition, GM crops are usually genetically modified to tolerate herbicides like glyphosate and/or dicamba. In order to test the stability of these traits, the GM plants will also have to be sprayed throughout the growing season with the respective herbicides.

Test site

One night several years ago, a group of activists scaled the fence around a Monsanto site, in search of test plots. One activist (who I will not name for legal reasons) showed me pictures of a huge notice board for the field workers: the daily pesticide spray schedule with multiple chemicals to be applied on different plots. Often the test sites border on residential areas and schools. “You open the window in the morning and suddenly you have this metallic taste in your mouth,” Autumn Ness told me. She was one of the organisers of the 2014 anti-pesticide referendum on Maui. The demand was for the industry to halt planting and finance an independent public health study and an environmental assessment. Only if the pesticide use on the island were to be found safe, would the companies be allowed to continue their work. The activists had a budget of $200,000, while Monsanto spent close to $9 million on a media blitz to prevent a moratorium. Nevertheless, the anti-pesticide campaign won the referendum, but Monsanto immediately contested the result in court.

Monsanto has no presence on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, but Syngenta and others certainly do. One of the anti-pesticide campaigners there is Marghee Maupin, a community nurse. She still remembers the day she was working at the local hospital in the small town of Waimea. Suddenly a group of students and teachers from Waimea High School showed up in the emergency room, suffering from acute breathing problems. Tests later showed that on that day, chlorpyrifos had been sprayed right next to the school. Maupin estimates that at least once a week, she sees a patient whose symptoms are caused by exposure to pesticides: asthma, skin rashes, frequent severe nose bleeds, headaches and vomiting among others. Maupin also looks after cancer patients – the rate of rare cancers in communities near the agrochemical sites is significantly higher than the national average. She knows of an extended family where 35 members suffer from cancer; the youngest patient is a 10-year old boy with testicular cancer.

The anti-pesticide legislation activists on Kauai fought for, suffered the same fate as that on Maui. Here too, the agrochemical companies went to court when the Kauai County Council passed an ordinance that mandated the companies declare which pesticides they used where and when and stipulated a no-spray zone around schools.

The Center for Food Safety (CFS) is one of the organisations that helped draft the anti-pesticide legislation on Hawaii. George Kimbrell is CFS’s Legal Director and he stayed closely involved while the case brought by the agrochemical companies advanced though the court system. In autumn of 2016 the 9th Circuit Court, one of the 2nd highest level courts in the United States, found that only states and the federal government, but not counties, like Maui or Kauai, have the right to regulate matters to do with pesticides or genetically engineered seeds. “That means the state of Hawaii could enact a law that protects its citizens and the environment from the harm of pesticide spraying and the accompanying genetically engineered crop planting, and the federal government can’t stop them,” Kimbrell told me at the end of last year. With Senate Bill SB3095 the state of Hawaii finally did what activists, health professionals, politicians like Gary Hooser and environmental organisations have been fighting for since 2012. And that’s why the Governor signing the bill into law is such a big and joyous event on Hawaii.

In US law nothing equivalent to the precautionary principle in European law exists, says Kimbrell, who therefore considers environmental law the only means to fight agrochemical companies – “Basically you are squeezing blood from statutory stones.” But fights like the ones in Hawaii are beginning to cost companies like Monsanto and Syngenta too much money. “They are going to Puerto Rico,” says Kimbrell. The hassle of the press, litigation and public protests, have driven them elsewhere, and Kimbrell thinks that while the activists may have lost some battles, there is still hope that they will ‘win the war’.

And as for Puerto Rico – CFS and other organisations are already working with a new generation of activists there, teaching them the lessons learnt from the successful fight on Hawaii.

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