A Letter From Mackenzie

As we wind down from the summer and look ahead to September, we’re so grateful to Mackenzie Feldman for sharing her smarts and enthusiasm with us as our intern this summer at our Oakland office. Mackenzie continues her studies this fall semester at UC Berkeley in Society and Environment and Food Systems.

by Mackenzie Feldman
Real Food Media Summer 2016 Intern

I still clearly remember the day in 2013 when I first learned about genetically engineered foods. It was my junior year in high school in Honolulu, Hawaii, and my friend was telling my mother and me about what she was learning in environmental science class. My mother and I had never heard about GMOs before. We certainly hadn’t heard that almost all of the papayas in Hawaii were now genetically modified.

After learning about GMOs, my mother became very curious, and started reading book after book to learn more about the genetic alteration and manipulation of genes in agriculture. I would try to teach people what I was learning from her, including all of the harmful effects of GMOs, from food allergies to cancerous herbicide residues. People would try to poke holes in my statements, and with my lack of knowledge, I found myself unable to back up my arguments. From then on, my mother started to send me to school with scanned pages from her books so that I had the facts in front of me when I would get into debates.

I have always had an interest in what makes a healthy food system, but from this moment on, it became a definite passion. And the more I learned about what was happening in my home state, Hawaii, the more passionate I became. Hawaii is now the world’s leading producer of genetically engineered seed corn. We spray 17 times more restricted-use insecticides per acre than on the U.S. mainland. Glyphosate, declared in 2015 by the World Health Organization as a “probable carcinogen”, and atrazine, an endocrine disruptor, are but a few of the many chemicals applied to the genetically engineered crops being grown on the testing grounds each year. Monsanto, Pioneer, Dow AgroSciences, and Syngenta have established research stations on 4 of our 8 islands. Children who attended school near these testing sites begun to be frequently sent home sick, and Hawaii now has 10 times the national rate of birth defects and illnesses.

The harm caused by this extensive chemical use attracted media, as a group of residents called the Shaka Movement emerged in 2014. Shaka, which stands for Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki (child) and the ‘Aina (land) is committed to protecting public health and the environment, and called for a moratorium on GMO farming on Maui County (consisting of the islands of Maui, Lanai, and Molokai) until an environmental impact study could prove these practices safe.

To fight the moratorium proposal, Monsanto and the other biotech companies spent nearly $8 million, making this political campaign the most expensive in Hawaii history. Monsanto commercials would play on TV almost every day, trying to convince people that they were feeding the world. One commerical in particular still stands out in my mind, where Monsanto filmed their Molokai employees holding “Farmers 4 GMOs” and “Science Supports GMOs” signs, and took turns speaking into the camera saying, “We are loving moms and dads, paddlers, and surfers, Hawaiian homesteaders and farmers, and we support the science and safety behind GMOs.”

The Shaka Movement, on the other hand, had only $60,000 to spend, but used it to go door-to-door to educate people about the poisonous destruction occurring. It was a story of David vs. Goliath, and even though the companies outspent Shaka by a whopping 133 to 1, the Shaka Movement and the Maui County people saw a victory on November 4, 2014, when the votes of 23,082 citizens for the GMO ban narrowly outnumbered the 22,005 against it. This was before the industry opponents filed a lawsuit in Second Circuit court and Monsanto executives filed a federal lawsuit. And just seven months later, on June 30, 2015, a federal judge struck down Maui County’s moratorium. The issue was not whether GMOs were harmful or not to the environment. The issue was whether County law could preempt State or Federal law on the same subject.

The fight is not unique to Maui County. The Big Island and Kauai also passed GMO bans, before Monsanto and Dow sued in federal court to get the cases overturned. The counties have fought back, appealing to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the rulings on the grounds that the State and Federal laws do not have the right to pre-empt County laws on this issue. The decision should be out in several months and will be critical to the state of Hawaii.

It is absurd to me that our little string of islands host the largest number of experimental biotech crop trials in the United States. Companies are drawn to Hawaii because of the tropical climate, allowing for more generations of crops, as well as new varieties, to be raised all year round. GE crop testing in Hawaii has taken place since the mid-1990s, when the FDA first approved GM crops for commercial sale. Within the past few years in particular, these large biotech companies have consolidated agriculture, and one in four people who work in agriculture in Hawaii now work for the seed industry. The irony is, so many people and so many acres are used for this food production, and it is not even being grown for human consumption. After the 10 million pounds of seeds annually are tested and shipped to the U.S. Mainland, the GMO corn is grown and used for animal feed, biofuel, and sweetener for processed foods.

It makes me sad that my ancient Hawaiian ancestors were 100 percent self-reliant farmers with completely organic methods. It makes me frustrated that now 90 percent of our food on the Hawaiian Islands is imported. It makes me angry that it is so difficult for small organic farmers on the islands to obtain land, people who genuinely want to grow food without harming the environment.

It makes me hopeful to know though that there are so many people around me who are working to make this food system healthier and more just. My Hawaiian roots fuel my passion every day to want to spread awareness and help improve our current food system. These issues hit close to home, literally, and are a constant reminder of what inspired me to join this food movement in the first place.


Mackenzie Feldman is an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley majoring in Society and Environment and minoring in Food Systems. Mackenzie is passionate about many aspects of the food system, including food policy, sustainable agriculture, and issues involving labor rights and the corporate control of the food system. Her prior experience includes serving as the Marketing and Directed Research Intern at Oahu Fresh, which connected with local farms to provide a CSA in her hometown of Honolulu, Hawaii. At UC Berkeley, Mackenzie competes on the Beach Volleyball team, teaches an Entrepreneurship Speaker Series class at the Haas School of Business, and is a member of the education committee at the Berkeley Student Food Collective. Mackenzie brings her fiery passion to improve the food system as well as her experience of seeing corporate control of the food system firsthand in her community. Mackenzie is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.