Islands at Risk - film review (27/6/2007)

Islands at Risk: Genetic Engineering in Hawaii
A film by Earthjustice, 2006
The film can be viewed in its entirety online at:

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Review by Claire Robinson

In my corner of England, the growing season starts in June and lasts for four short months. It's an achievement if once a week I get enough tiny veg from the garden to make a meal. So when I briefly lived in Hawaii in the early 90s, I felt as if I'd died and woken up in God's garden. My host's home was set in a jungle of coconut, banana, avocado, pineapple, mango and papaya trees. He hadn't planted anything himself, nor did he tend the plants. Nature was in charge. The plants produced so much food that it would fall off the loaded trees every night. In the morning we had to pick it up before the wildlife got to it, and eat it or give it away before it rotted.

As for weeds, I couldn't see anything that I could identify as one. Amongst the cropping trees were huge, extravagantly beautiful flowering and foliage plants. They looked strangely familiar and yet alien. Eventually, I realized that I recognized them from home as garden exotics. But in Hawaii, they grew wild and supersized, and you didn't have to buy, plant, feed, or weed them. Summer lasted all year round, so the plants enjoyed an endless growing season. This was their home, and the Creator had given them everything they needed.

How did a place so blessed by nature find itself targeted, in the chilling words of one activist, as a "national and international sacrifice area for biotech and genetic modification research"? How did its fertile fields get to be occupied by monocultures of experimental plants with Guantanamo-style bags over their heads? Answer: by stealth. A film by the Hawaiian nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice, Islands at Risk, features an interview with local hunter and activist Walter Ritte, who says, "We knew nothing about GMO until one day there was a rumour that there were strange things being grown in our cornfields. The whole farming community was changing and we didn't even know." In a process subsidized by US taxpayers and assisted by the state government of Hawaii, the islands' soils have become the open-air laboratories of chemical and biotech giants DuPont, Monsanto, Dow, and Syngenta, for the testing of GM crops.

The film shows that the entire enterprise has been cloaked in secrecy from the start. Even lawmakers are not allowed to know what is being planted and where. What is known is that on the island of Oahu, over 2000 field tests of GM crops have taken place. These include pharma plants producing AIDS, hepatitis and swine diarrhoea vaccines, and crops producing industrial compounds. And the experimental fields are within spitting distance of residential areas, schools and old people's homes. The industry claims it's safe as there is no rising incidence of disease. But this is exposed in the film as a lie. Lorrin Pang, MD and consultant to the World Health Organization, points out that the ten years since GMOs have been introduced have seen rises in prematurity, cancers, attention deficit disorder, and adult onset diabetes in children. Pang adds that no one can draw any conclusions as to the cause, as GMOs in food are not labeled.

If you think such criminal disregard for people's health and well-being should be against the law, well, it is. Earthjustice has had some success fighting the industry and government's GM contamination plans in court. In 2003, a biotech company wanted to produce GM drug-producing algae off the pristine Kona coast. The drug that was to be made in the algae had never been assessed for its impact on human health. Earthjustice took the State Board of Agriculture to court to enforce environmental laws relating to pharma crops. After two and a half years of costly litigation, the judge ruled in Earthjustice's favour and said the state has to conduct a study assessing impacts of such crops on the environment before allowing companies to produce them.

As a telling postscript, the film points out that a few months after the court judgment, a GM drug made from a product similar to the one proposed for testing in Kona was given to six healthy men in a human trial in London. All six were rushed into intensive care with multiple organ failure and continue to suffer severe ill effects.

You won't find anyone from industry or government talking about such disasters in Hawaii, however, where hype has replaced fact. Biotech promoters claim that GM virus-resistant papaya saved the papaya industry, whereas organic farmer Melanie Bondera points out that according to the figures, the opposite is true. Since GM papayas were introduced in Hawaii, 60% of the Hawaiian market (mainly Japan) has been lost due to consumer rejection of GMOs, and the small farmers have gone out of business. It's doubtful whether Hawaii's papaya industry can ever recover. Fifty per cent of the papayas never intended to be GM are now GM-contaminated, as is the seed source at the University of Hawaii.

The gene-bashers didn't have such an easy ride when they tried to "save" a Hawaiian sacred food plant, the taro. Hawaiians have been growing taro for over a thousand years, and there are hundreds of varieties adapted to different conditions. Plant experts knew which one to plant where. So when the University of Hawaii announced that it was going to "save" the taro by genetically engineering disease resistance into it, Hawaiians were not convinced. As Jerry Kananui of the Hawaii Island Taro Group says on the film, "It hurts me when I hear they're going to save the Hawaiian varieties of taro. Because they don't need to be saved. They're here." To add insult to injury, Hawaiians found out that the university had already patented the taro. Fury erupted. There's a traditional Hawaiian belief that the taro is the first-born, the body form of the god Kane, the giver of life. It's more important than man. Man's job is to ensure that the taro survives forever, because the taro's job is to feed man. So people got hold of copies of the patents and publicly tore them up, telling the university, "You cannot own our ancestors." The university backed down and gave up the patents.

As one of the farmers interviewed on the film points out, Hawaii is more than capable of supporting itself by selling its abundant non-GM crops: pineapples, flowers, bananas, organic crops. But there's no government support for such agriculture. The federal US government and the state of Hawaii prefer crops with bags over their heads, lethal algae, and papaya that no one wants. The Hawaiian GM experiment has been a recipe not for development but economic decline.

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