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A rising tide of cash

Pesticide and GMO companies spend big to influence politics in Hawaii

money pile
Shutterstock

Hawaii has become "ground zero" in the controversy over genetically modified crops and pesticides. With the seed crop industry (including conventional as well as GMO crops) reaping $146.3 million a year in sales resulting from its activities in Hawaii, the out-of-state pesticide and GMO firms SyngentaMonsantoDuPont PioneerDow ChemicalBASF, and Bayer CropScience have brought substantial sums of corporate cash into the state's relatively small political arena.

Chemical conglomerates retaliate against local democratic control

These “Big 6” pesticide and GMO firms are very active on the islands, making use of the three to four annual growing seasons to develop new GMO seeds more quickly. The development of new GMOs by these pesticide and seed conglomerates goes hand-in-hand with heavy pesticide use in some of the islands' experimental crop fields, new data show.

Kauai County -- consisting primarily of the island of Kauai, known as Hawaii's "Garden Isle" and home to Waimea Canyon State Park -- passed a law in November 2013 that will require disclosure of pesticide use and GMO crops sewn by growers and create buffer zones around schools, parks, medical facilities, and private residences. The law is set to go into effect in August 2014.

Hawaii County banned GMOs altogether in November 2013, and a Maui County initiative to ban GMOs recently obtained enough citizen signatures to be placed on the November 2014 ballot.

Since experiencing these setbacks, the ag giants have retaliated in a big way. And they and other Big Ag interests have poured money into lobbying against GMO restrictions and backing GMO-friendly candidates (details below).

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Sport fishing

This fishy World Cup bracket ranks countries by their ocean goals

Pallet surgeon fish, symbolising Japan's national soccer team's "Blue Samurai", swim around a ball beside a goal at the Sea Paradise aquarium in Hakkeijima, west of Tokyo June 8, 2006.
Reuters/Toshiyuki Aizawa

With the World Cup rolling into its second week, you are probably already tired of the endless internet commentary but ... TOO BAD. Some of us are into it, and we've only got two more weeks to view the whole world through a football/soccer/spending-the-day-at-the-pub lens.

Since we've seen so much good news on the oceans this week, it seems only appropriate to match up the disparate but burgeoning American interests of marine health and European team sports (feel free to match this one up with a cool beverage, too).

Click to embiggen.
Upwell
Click to embiggen.

Read more: Food, Living

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to bee or not to bee

This is what your dairy aisle would look like if all the bees died off

Remember the last time we freaked out about what would happen if the world's pollinators suddenly perished? Someone get me a paper bag, because I'm starting to hyperventilate again.

To raise awareness about colony collapse disorder, a mysterious disease that started taking out entire beehives in 2006, Whole Foods brought the fight to suburban grocery aisle by showing us what our supermarkets would look like without any food that had been helped along by a bee. That's right: Your greek yogurt, butter, cream cheese, organic milk, and -- gasp -- ice cream, are in peril.

Whole Foods Market/PRNewsFoto  Huffington Post

Read more: Food, Living

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Could small, biodiverse farms help Hawaii grow enough food to feed itself?

Chris Kobayashi and Dimi Rivera in field.
Ian Umeda
Chris Kobayashi (right), her husband Dimi Rivera (extreme left), and a friend harvest taro on their 10-acre farm on Kauai. Kobayashi says transitioning to small-scale, agroeological farms will be a lot of hard work, but will lead to a vibrant local economy.

For Chris Kobayashi and her husband, Dimi Rivera, it all started with Japanese cucumbers. “In 1997 we said, ‘OK, let’s grow Japanese cucumbers, but let’s grow it organically,’” Kobayashi tells me as we walk around her farm in Hanalei Bay on Kauai’s North Shore. “You know, because they are crispy, crunchy, and yummy and you can eat the skin and everything,”

The couple knew that it would be a tough vegetable to grow. Cucumbers are prone to extensive damage from fruit flies in Hawaii. So they covered every single cucumber that came up with plastic bags. “We’d charge a dollar for each at the farmers market,” says Kobayshi. “We set up a sign on that said ‘Japanese Cucumbers, $1.’ We offered samples and people got hooked because it’s so crunchy. Then they started asking, 'Do you have any kale?' I was like, ‘Kale? What is that?’ So that’s how we started growing other kinds of veggies. It was just all an organic thing that happened. None of this was planned.” Today, Kobayashi’s family’s 10-acre Waioli Farm, named after the stream that runs beside it, grows produce using organic practices — mainly taro, which they supply to families and traditional poi (taro paste) makers on Oahu and the Big Island, but also some fruits and vegetables for their local farmers market stand.

Kobayashi, whose family has been growing taro commercially for generations, is a member of Hawaii SEED, a coalition of grassroots citizen groups and food activists that promotes ecological food and farming in Hawaii. I met with her when I went to Hawaii to report on the growing citizens’ movement against the genetically modified seed industry in the islands. (Read my in-depth story on the issue here.) To be more specific, I met with her, and several other small-scale farmers on Kauai and Oahu, in an effort to understand whether there were indeed any viable alternatives to industrial-style farming in Hawaii. Could this remote island chain, which currently imports nearly 90 percent of its food, transition to growing enough food to feed itself though small-scale, agroecological farming?

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All-natural selection

When will the vague “natural” food label die?

cheez-e-puffz
Hallie Bateman

Do we really have to tell you that the “natural” label on foods is pretty much meaningless? If so, you should also know that unicorns are mythological, not extinct.

OK, so the USDA has some rules about what can be called natural, but it just applies to meat and eggs, and is pretty loose. And, sure, I’ve heard company representatives explain their corporate definition of what’s natural, but frankly, it’s easier to believe in unicorns.

You can buy all-natural Cheetos, all-natural butter flavor granules, and all-natural, um, whatever the heck this is.

Of course, there’s a reason marketers keep slapping the "natural" label on things: It works.

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Obama to create largest marine protected area ever, because bigger is better

ocean
Shutterstock

Say what you will about the U.S., when we do something, we do it supersized.

So when Obama decides to make a marine reserve, he doesn't just put your average patch of ocean off-limits to commercial fishing, energy exploration, and other shenanigans. No. It's a massive portion of the Pacific that more than doubles the total amount of protected ocean. In the world. From The Washington Post:

[T]he Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument would be expanded from almost 87,000 square miles to nearly 782,000 square miles — all of it adjacent to seven islands and atolls controlled by the United States. The designation would include waters up to 200 nautical miles offshore from the territories.

“It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to the pristine ocean,” said Enric Sala, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence who has researched the area’s reefs and atolls since 2005.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Why oh Kauai?

GMO giants’ pesticide use threatens rare Hawaiian species

Hawaiian honeycreeper
U.S. Geological Survey
An endangered Hawaiian honeycreeper.

WAIMEA, HAWAII -- Given its fragile and unusually rich ecology, the Hawaiian island of Kauai seems ill-suited as a site for agricultural experiments that use heavy amounts of toxic chemicals. But four transnational corporations -- BASF Plant Science, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont Pioneer, and Syngenta -- have been doing just those kinds of experiments here for about two decades, extensively spraying pesticides on their GMO test fields. As a result, the landscape on the southwest corner of the island, around the town of Waimea, has become one of the most toxic chemical environments in all of American agriculture.

This poses serious risks for the people of Kauai, as I've documented, but even less noticed are the hazards posed to the unique flora and fauna of the island and the coral reefs just off its shores. Each of the seven highly toxic pesticides most commonly used by the GMO giants on Kauai (alachlor, atrazine, chlorpyrifos, methomyl, metolachlor, paraquat, and permethrin) is known to be toxic to wildlife, plants, or both.

Lysimachia daphnoides
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
An endangered flowering plant on Kauai: Lysimachia daphnoides, aka Pacific loosestrife.

The isolated geography of Kauai has fostered the evolution of a great diversity of birds, bugs, and plants. Kauai has more unique species -- species that live only on the island -- than anywhere else in the world, said Carl Berg, an ecologist and long-time advocate for clean water with the Kauai chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. Berg and others fear that these endemic species are being put at great risk of extinction by exposure to the chemicals, though he says he has no idea the extent of the damage.

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Breastfeeding: Good for babies, the environment, and justice, too

breast-feed
Black Women Do Breastfeed

Last week, a bunch of people were bellyaching on the networks about Karlesha Thurman, the recent California State University Long Beach grad immortalized in a photo capturing Thurman breastfeeding her infant daughter during her graduation ceremony. When she posted the picture to the Facebook page “Black Women Do Breastfeed” (I know, here we are again, having to explain what we do and don’t do), some viewers went apoplectic. Thurman’s chiders were apparently offended that she dared to bare a breast while helping her daughter live. (You can read and see plenty of that vitriol at Buzzfeed.)

Thurman’s actions were not owed to a lack of home training or sluttiness, as some of her critics argued. The public breastfeeding was intentional. She was pregnant in her last year in college and delivered in her final academic semester. “She was my motivation to keep going,” Thurman wrote in an open letter about her daughter to her haters on Facebook, “so me receiving my BA was OUR moment.”

It wasn’t that long ago that Facebook was banning photos of breastfeeding, claiming they were vulgar. But Thurman is part of a movement to normalize public breastfeeding, resisting those who can only view breasts through a sexual lens. But breastfeeding is not only about resisting the policing of women’s bodies -- and in Thurman’s case, black women’s bodies, whose policing basically became codified during the slave trade. It’s also a health issue, an environmental issue, and a justice issue as well.

Read more: Food, Living

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Beekeepers are breeding a race of superbees at the Seattle airport

FlightPath_Rod Hatfield
Rod Hatfield

It's a sunny June day and I'm standing in a lovely meadow. Birds are singing, flowers are in bloom, and the temptation to lay out a blanket and have a picnic is strong. In fact, if not for the occasional roar of a 747 overhead, you would never guess that you were right next to one of the busiest airports in the country.

Seattle's Sea-Tac Airport boasts up to 855 takeoffs and landings a day. But just a few hundred feet away, thousands of teeny-tiny takeoffs and landings are also happening on a strip the size of a ruler.

Meet the superbees of Sea-Tac.

It's pretty clear by now that bees are in peril: Threatened by colony collapse disorder, their long-term survival is in jeopardy. So the Port of Seattle has joined forces with local nonprofit Common Acre to establish Flight Path, a project that will turn the unused green spaces on the south end of Sea-Tac into native pollinator habitat -- and in the process, produce a breed of bees that will be better suited for survival in the coming years.

Read more: Food

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The Kauai Cocktail

GMO companies are dousing Hawaiian island with toxic pesticides

The Waimea River.
Patsy Nitta

WAIMEA, HAWAII -- The island of Kauai, Hawaii, has become Ground Zero in the intense domestic political battle over genetically modified crops. But the fight isn't just about the merits or downsides of GMO technology. It's also about regular old pesticides.

The four transnational corporations that are experimenting with genetically engineered crops on Kauai have transformed part of the island into one of most toxic chemical environments in all of American agriculture.

For the better part of two decades, BASF Plant Science, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont Pioneer, and Syngenta have been drenching their test crops near the small town of Waimea on the southwest coast of Kauai with some of the most dangerous synthetic pesticides in use in agriculture today, at an intensity that far surpasses the norm at most other American farms, an analysis of government pesticide databases shows.

Each of the seven highly toxic chemicals most commonly used on the test fields has been linked to a variety of serious health problems ranging from childhood cognitive disorders to cancer. And when applied together in a toxic cocktail, their joint action can make them even more dangerous to exposed people.