Halfway through my two weeks in Kaua`i, my family and I decided to check out a cozy wine bar on the island’s lush north coast. It was hipster cool, and the clientele canoodling over their glasses of Cotes du Rhone felt a world away from the fields of genetically modified corn I had just toured. But nothing is far away on an island.
Chatting with our server, I mentioned we were here on a part-research, part-family vacation. I told her we were here to learn about some of the world’s largest chemical companies that have made the island ground zero for genetically modified seed development and the intense pesticide spraying those crops rely on, and also to meet with the community members who were fighting back. (Earth Island Journal published a great piece about this issue in 2014).
“Oh yes, I know about that,” the waitress said. In a quieter voice she added: “My best friend’s son was born with his intestines outside his body. We think it was because of the pesticides she was exposed to when she was pregnant.” Sadly, I knew what she was talking about. The birth defect is called gastroschisis. I’d been hearing about it since I got to Kaua`i, where gastroschisis is on the rise and epidemiologists are worried it’s tied to in utero exposure to pesticides.
Starting about 15 years ago, these chemical companies — which are now in the business of seed ownership and development, too — set up shop on Kaua`i and other Hawaiian islands to develop their genetically engineered corn for seed. Thanks to the islands’ warm climate, these companies can grow corn year-round, allowing them to speed new products to market.
These genetically engineered crops are designed to be grown in tandem with many antiquated — and toxic — pesticides, including the herbicides glyphosate and atrazine, and the insecticide chlorpyrifos. Many of the pesticides used on the islands are known as “restricted use pesticides,” an EPA designation for chemicals that have concerning impacts on people and the environment, and that are only to be sprayed by certified pesticide applicators or those supervised by one.
Despite the worrisome toxicity of these chemicals, when companies like Monsanto and Dow began operating in Hawai’i, they were not required to disclose what was being sprayed on their fields or when. There were no buffer zones between corn fields and communities. Indeed, the corporate fields abut neighborhoods, schoolyards, streams, and the ocean. Standing on a bluff overlooking the acres of corn, as the wind whipped my hair, the abstract concept of toxic pesticide drift became ever less so.
Over the years, there have been alarming cases of workers sickened, schoolchildren impacted, and neighborhoods affected by increasing rates of asthma, cancers, and other illnesses people worry are associated with the spraying. Concerned about these health impacts, movements emerged to bring the community together and demand regulations, movements led largely by women who saw up-close-and-personal the toll of virtually unregulated spraying.
Malia Chun, a mother and cultural practitioner who lives in one of most pesticide-impacted communities on Kaua`i, was one of these leaders. When children in her community were tested in 2015, Chun learned that there were residues of 36 different pesticides in her own daughter’s hair.
Working with partners from local groups like Hawai`i Alliance for Progressive Action and Hawai`i SEED, as well as with national groups including the Center for Food Safety and Pesticide Action Network, she and many others helped craft and organize for legislation that would protect local communities from these toxic chemicals.
The organizing was an uphill battle: The chemical industry is a powerful lobby in Hawai`i. Locally, the industry is a main source of jobs, and chemical company lobbyists have the money to vastly outspend the grassroots groups. Still, the advocacy groups forged on, and in June this year, organizers celebrated a hard-fought victory: The governor of Hawai`i signed into legislation a comprehensive first-in-the-nation ban on the brain-damaging insecticide chlorpyrifos. The bill also establishes pesticide-free buffer zones around schools and requires reporting on pesticide use.
The beauty and devastation on Kaua`i won’t leave me, nor will the fighting spirit of those who have been working for justice these many long years. As I left Hawai’i, I couldn’t help but remember that Earth, like Kaua`i, is an island. And nothing is far away on an island.
Header image: Pesticide Action Network North America