Pesticides in Paradise:
Hawai’i’s Health and Environment At Risk


Interview with Ashley Lukens, Director of Hawai’i Center for Food Safety


Ashley LukensAshley Lukens is the Director for the Hawai’i Center for Food Safety (HCFS). Her work focuses on issues of human and environmental health as they relate to the food system. She holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

How did Hawai’i become the hotbed for open-air experimental field tests of GE crops?

Lukens: Hawai‘i’s agricultural sector has been dominated by industrial agribusinesses for over a century. Over the past decade, the growth of the pesticide-seed industry has transformed Hawai‘i into the global “ground zero” for experimental GE crop and pesticide testing, with the industry hosting more GE field test sites in Hawai‘i than any other U.S. state. Hawai‘i’s chief attraction for seed crop firmsthe pesticide-seed industry was and is that itsis the Islands’ year-round growing season, which allows for multiple plantings per year.

Most of the field tests involve GE corn or soybeans, and 97% are conducted by five multinational pesticide companies (Monsanto, DuPont-Pioneer, Dow, Syngenta, BASF). As stated in Hawai‘i Center for Food Safety’s groundbreaking report Pesticides in Paradise, with over 85% of field test permits issued for Hawai‘i were for testing the herbicide tolerance of GE crops. In other words, the majority of GE crops tested in Hawai‘i are genetically engineered to withstand greater and greater applications of herbicides. Communities living alongside GE crop test fields are extremely concerned about pesticide drift as well as the impacts these pesticides have on their health and the environment.

In your opinion, what’s the most shocking fact about genetic engineering or its ramifications that everyone should be aware of?

The “Great GMO Debate” in Hawai‘i isn’t about the safety of eating GMO foods; rather, it’s about the link between pesticides and GE crops, and the human and environmental health impacts of exposure to those pesticides. It’s shocking to me that there are over two dozen Hawai‘i schools within one mile of GE field test sites that apply large amounts of pesticides annually. While the pesticide-seed industry puts the health of Hawai‘i’s children and future generations at risk, the State of Hawai‘i has taken no action to strengthen its regulation of pesticides and ensure protections to prevent exposure, especially for vulnerable children.

What are some of the direct health and environmental impacts of this incessant spraying in Hawai‘i?

Children in these schools and residents living in communities alongside GE test fields are at risk of low-level, chronic exposure to pesticides on a daily basis. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (APA), toxic exposure to pesticides during fetal, neonatal, and infant life can disrupt critical developmental processes. Pesticide exposure in childhood, especially on a daily basis at low levels, has also been linked to long-term health effects including cancers, neurobehavioral and cognitive deficits, adverse birth outcomes, and respiratory disorders including asthma.

Pesticide drift and runoff cause devastating and long-term harm to our environment and wildlife. For instance, massive spraying of glyphosate herbicide has been a major factor in the catastrophic decline in monarch butterfly populations by nearly wiping out the monarch’s host plant, milkweed, in Midwest farm fields. Chemical pesticide run-off is associated with a wide range of habitat damage, including direct species harm and soil and watershed degradation. Studies have found that benthic, or bottom-living, organisms in tropical bays such as Hawai‘i had higher concentrations of contaminants than bays in comparable temperate regions.

Photo: Christopher Pala for the Guardian

Photo: Christopher Pala for the Guardian

What is the state currently doing to protect its residents from the health and environmental impacts of pesticides?

The State of Hawai‘i does not conduct regular monitoring of pesticides in air, water, soil or surfaces, and a recently published government-sponsored report indicates that there are major gaps in the State’s current oversight and regulation of pesticides. In response to these threats, community members on Moloka‘i, Maui, Hawai‘i Island, and Kaua‘i have organized to pass county ordinances that would secure the appropriate regulatory frameworks to protect families and the environment from these potential harms. Despite overwhelming public support coupled with extensive scientific and medical evidence, community initiatives to increase protections have been met with opposition by state legislators, the Hawai‘i Departments of Agriculture and Health and, unsurprisingly, the pesticide-seed industry.

How informed is the public? What about communities where biotech companies provide most of the jobs?

One thing people should know is that the industry spends a lot of money to convince the public that it’s the backbone of Hawai‘i’s agriculture economy. For example, when Maui County citizens were campaigning to pass a Moratorium on GE Crops during the 2014 state elections, Monsanto and Dow Chemical spent over $10 million in advertising to misrepresent the initiative as a “farming ban” and spread the fear that the moratorium would lead to major job loss. The fact is that in 2016 the pesticide-seed industry employed 1,493 workers, or just 0.24% of Hawai‘i’s work force (612,800 jobs).

Although the pesticide-seed industry operates in rural communities where residents rely upon employment with the industry to provide for their families, this does not mean these jobs are safe and without risk. In October 2015, I presented the findings from our report to an audience of over 100 Monsanto employees, some of whom leaned in to learn about the potential health risks farmworkers face when it comes to pesticides. Medical studies show that some of the risks posed to farm workers are the development of Non-Hodgins’s Lymphoma, Parkinson’s disease, low sperm count, and cancers including bladder, colon, and rectal (Pesticides in Paradise section 6.1). In January of 2016, 10 Syngenta field workers were hospitalized after exposure to chlorpyrifos, an insecticide that EPA has finally proposed to ban because of its extreme toxicity. Syngenta chose not to report the workers’ symptoms, which indicates the extent to which the industry prioritizes the health and safety of its own workers.

What are some of the successes HCFS and allies have experienced in the recent years? What is your hope for the future?

Mothers are speaking out, college students are asking critical questions, and legislators are putting their feet down. We are coming together and these companies are getting scared. BASF is on their way out, Monsanto is starting to buy land in Puerto Rice and reduce their operations here in Hawaiʻi; it’s just becoming too expensive and time-consuming to operate. More and more people are standing up to corporations that use our state like bad guests. They come see the wonderful land we live on, feel the aloha spirit, and abuse the hospitality. We are saying no, and they are beginning to listen.