Pesticides in Paradise

Hawai'i has quietly undergone an agricultural revolution whereby chemical companies treat the islands as pesticide testing grounds for GE crops, but communities are fighting back.

Occupy Hilo Light Brigade and GMO Free Hawaii Island team up for a joint action to raise awareness about GMOs
Occupy Hilo Light Brigade and GMO Free Hawaii Island team up for a joint action to raise awareness about GMOs (Occupy Hilo)

Malia Chun’s suspicion about her new neighbors started soon after her eyes began to itch and her lungs began to burn.

Fallowed sugar cane crops once surrounded her home in Kekaha, a rural, close-knit community on the west side of Kauaʻi. But just a few years after moving there with her two daughters, Chun noticed that genetically engineered (GE) crops soaked with toxic pesticides had taken the sugar cane’s place.

“The only thing that stands between my home and these chemicals is a polluted irrigation ditch,” says Chun, who says that the pesticide spraying is constant, even at night. “We are surrounded by and exposed to pesticides on a daily basis.”

It wasn’t always this way. Eight years ago, when Chun first moved to Kekaha, she considered it a blessing to be able to raise her children in such a safe, community-minded environment.

“It was a gem,” says Chun, a Native Hawaiian.

Chun didn’t know it yet, but these new crops were just a microcosm of a larger effort to turn the Hawaiian Islands into ground zero for GE testing.


Each year, millions of tourists flock to Hawaiʻi to kick back, relax and unwind, driving billions of dollars into the state’s economy.

But just beyond those sandy white shorelines and tropical waters lies a hidden industry that doesn’t make the front pages of Hawaiʻi travel magazines. Over the past two decades, the world’s largest chemical companies, including Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, DuPont and Dow, have set up shop on the islands. They lease or buy up agricultural lands left behind by failed sugar cane plantations and transform them into open-air test sites for genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, as well as centers of commercial GE seed production. Year-round warm weather allows for the planting of several crops per year, and the companies spray dozens of pesticides—also year-round. (Learn more about Monsanto’s history)

Today, Hawaiʻi has more experimental field trials of genetically engineered crops than any other state in the nation, with operations on Kaua‘i, O‘ahu, Maui and Molokaʻi. Where sugar cane, taro, breadfruit and papaya once reigned, mile-long fields of genetically engineered corn now grow.

Hawaiʻi’s seed industry drives some economic activity in the state, but the industry has its costs. School children have been hospitalized with symptoms of pesticide exposure, and organic and conventional farmers risk losing their markets from transgenic contamination by, for example, cross-pollination from genetically engineered crops. In addition, toxic dust from the fields regularly coats the windows of homes and businesses. Despite these deleterious impacts, Hawaiʻi’s state government and federal regulators have turned a deaf ear to complaints. Malia Chun, like many Hawaiʻi residents, believes that the GE crops and the pesticides that the crops are paired with threaten her health and the environment. Many of the pesticides are designated as “restricted use” because of their inherent health risks. They include chlorpyrifos, a developmental neurotoxin that causes brain damage in children; paraquat, linked to development of Parkinson’s disease; and atrazine, an endocrine disrupter that contaminates water sources.


After the chemical companies moved in, Chun started suffering shortness of breath, and even a simple cold could take her three weeks to recover from. One of her daughters also began experiencing headaches and occasional bloody noses. Her doctor’s only explanation was that Chun’s diagnosis of adult asthma was “environmental.”

Chun couldn’t simply pick up and move, so she decided to tackle the pesticide problem head on. She began organizing potlucks with local moms to share information about GE farming and pesticides. At first, few came. Like most small towns, the residents of Kekaha prefer to keep their problems to themselves, especially when the problem involves an industry that provides jobs where there are few.

Many residents, both native and non-native, also have a love/hate relationship with the agriculture industry. During the sugar plantation era, plantation owners provided jobs, houses and doctors for the families, but they came to that position of power after unlawfully overthrowing the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893. As a result, one has to be careful about criticizing the plantation days.

“It’s the perfect breeding ground for these companies to thrive,” explains Chun. “People don’t want to go against their family or friends, so the key is in educating the community first. But it’s very important that you do it in a certain way or you can come across as abrasive or a threat.”

Chun began participating in protests rallies, marches and hearings to try to get laws passed that protect the community from pesticides. In the fall of 2013, she joined thousands of doctors, nurses, farmers, beekeepers, labor unions, parents and others in the county seat of Lihue to support pesticide regulations. Some report that the “Mana March” was the largest public march in Kauaʻi history.

As Chun and other protestors lined the streets of Lihue, Kauaʻi County council member Gary Hooser could hear them shouting in support of the bill that he and fellow councilman Tim Bynum had introduced to address their concerns. Bill 249 targets large-scale agricultural pesticide users on Kauaʻi, requiring them to disclose which pesticides they are spraying, where and in what quantities. The bill also requires buffer zones between fields and public areas, including schools, hospitals and waterways.

(More info on the Kauaʻi Pesticide/GE Ordinance)

Hooser had received many complaints from his constituents about the pesticide issue over the past several years. Residents of West Kauaʻi, in particular, had been complaining for over a decade to the state about pesticide drift and its impacts.

They had reason to worry. On two occasions, noxious odors caused teachers and students at Waimea Middle School to become ill; some even went to the hospital. Members of the community suspected pesticides sprayed by Syngenta, but the company claimed that the source was actually stinkweed, a local plant.

The investigators’ report was inconclusive, finding traces of chemicals in the air from both pesticides, such as chlorpyrifos, and stinkweed. But the community’s fears weren’t assuaged. They felt that pesticides in the air near children were unsafe. The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees, concluding that early life exposure to pesticides is associated with pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function and behavioral problems. “I know teachers that have classrooms right next to the fields,” says Chun, who runs a cultural enrichment program at a local community college. “Because we don’t have the disclosure we should have, we’re left to speculate about the impact that those chemicals might be having on our children.”

Pesticide runoff from GE crops was also suspected of causing a massive die-off of sea urchins along the ocean floor on the south side of Kauaʻi. Unfortunately, the state never tested the sea urchins for exposure to pesticides and the results of the investigation for the sudden die-off were inconclusive.

Kauaʻi’s people were fed up with the state’s lack of response to their concerns, so they reached out to Hooser for help.

“It was real clear to me the issue needed to be dealt with and it was my responsibility as a council member to do something,” says Hooser, who adds that there is broad-based support for regulation, from old and young, different ethnicities and education levels. “It wasn’t just my environmental friends. It was a mainstream issue.

”Hooser began meeting in people’s homes to discuss their options. After a series of these meetings, a draft of Bill 2491 came together. As development of the bill progressed, Hooser reached out to Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff, who offered to review the bill and assess its legal feasibility in the courts.

“As long as the State of Hawaiʻi continues to sit on its hands while companies spray Kauaʻi’s residents with toxic chemicals, the county government will be forced to take the lead,” says Achitoff. “It is their right and their kuleana [personal sense of responsibility].”

Over the next year, Hooser and others advocated tirelessly in their divided community for the passage of the bill. Though many were concerned about GE crops and pesticides, others were concerned about losing jobs. The biotech industry did everything to play up this fear, casting the bill as a “job killer” that would drive the industry right out of Kauaʻi. Before the hearings, people on both sides of the debate would line up at 5 a.m. just to ensure they got a seat.

During one public hearing, Malia Chun encouraged council members to be brave, even in the face of intense opposition from both industry and the mayor, who had come out against the bill because he didn’t believe it was legally defensible.

“Allowing the mayor to veto the bill would be like sending an abused child back to its abuser,” Chun told council members.

At a separate meeting, Hooser asked a biotech representative why the industry was fighting so hard against what seemed to him to be commonsense regulations. According to Hooser, the representative replied, “We are concerned that other communities might want to do this.”

After a year of heated county council hearings and a veto from the mayor, Kauaʻi County passed Bill 2491. The community had prevailed over four of the largest chemical companies in the world.

Soon after, the biotech companies sued.

The biotech representative’s concerns became a reality as other islands, after seeing what was happening in Kauaʻi, began to demand that they, too, have a say in whether GE crops are allowed in their communities.


The Hawaiian Islands have a long history of foreign interests coming in and using their land and water. In the mid-1800s, plantations took over water resources throughout Hawaiʻi to grow thirsty crops like sugar cane, leaving native communities out to dry. A century later, chemical companies brought GE crops to the island with the first-ever genetically engineered papaya that could resist a disease known as the Papaya Ring Spot Virus.

Though the biotech industry touts the GE papaya as a success, organic farmers claim that genetic drift from the GE papaya has cost them sales to lucrative markets like Japan and put their organic certifications in question. Today, organic and conventional farmers must take expensive measures to try to protect their crops from contamination by transgenic pollen drifting from the GE crop fields. Despite these impacts, Hawaiʻi’s state government and federal regulators have turned a deaf ear to the islands’ complaints, so community advocates on Maui, Hawaiʻi island and elsewhere are working to enact their own bans or regulations.

“People are just over it,” says Hooser. “These companies are corporate thugs.”

On the Big Island, none of the big biotech companies have yet taken root, and the people want to keep it that way. In December 2013, Mayor Billy Kenoi signed a bill banning farmers from expanding genetically altered crop production, except GE papaya. On Maui, citizen groups spent months gathering thousands of signatures and put a moratorium on the cultivation of GE organisms on the ballot. The initiative passed despite million-dollar ad buys from the biotech industry to persuade voters to reject the initiative.

(Learn more about the Big Island GMO moratorium)

Each case poses the same question: Do citizens have the right to determine what is allowed in their communities?

And in each case, the biotech industry has sued to take away that right. They have made a laundry list of obscure legal claims like federal pre-emption, state pre-emption, violation of county charters and the dormant commerce clause.

“Basically these high-octane lawyers are throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks”, says Paul Achitoff

The fate of these bans and restrictions is still unclear, with two of the three cases currently pending in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. But what is clear is that the issue of GE and pesticide use in Hawaiʻi has reinvigorated a larger debate over whether communities should have a say in what happens within their own borders.

“People have given their government up to the politicians and corporations, and now they’re ready to take back ownership of it,” says Hooser.

See the latest on Earthjustice’s GMO litigation and advocacy work.

Written by Jessica Knoblauch.
Published in the Spring 2015 issue of the Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine.