Kaua’i anti-GMO ‘Witch Trials’ continue, as Mayor faces death threats for bill veto

| November 5, 2013 |
(Credit: Dennis Fujimoto, via The Garden Island.) (Credit: Dennis Fujimoto, via The Garden Island.)

We have numerous horrific historical examples of periods of mass hysteria on social and religious issues—times in which a majority, or at least a vocal minority, took control of an issue in the absence of sound scientific evidence, leading to disastrous consequences. We may have just such a situation bubbling to the surface in Kaua’i, which is caught in a fierce legal and emotional battle over how to regulate GMOs.

The island has been debating for months whether or how to restrict GMOs and pesticides. This is a serious and complicated issue, and worthy of a robust public discussion. The consequences of any potential legislation extend far beyond Kaua’i’s shores, as it is an international nursery for the seed industry. For anti-GMO activists, it’s become Ground Zero in their effort to kill the technology.

Last month the Kauai Council voted 6-1 to pass Bill 2491 after a marathon session that ended at 3:30 a.m. At the meeting, anti-GMO supporters, which included many angry citizens and some scientists and prominent local people, claimed the bill was not restrictive enough; anti-GMO activists and their mainland legal teams believed the bill would pass legal muster but most independent legal experts disagreed, as it conflicted with numerous state and federal oversight laws.

At the time of the vote, Mayor Bernard Carvalho pleaded with the council to head off an expensive and messy and divisive legal confrontation by deferring the measure in order to work with the state to figure out how to enforce the law. His pleas were ignored. Last week, after getting detailed legal opinions that the measure ran afoul of existing state and federal laws, Carvalho vetoed the act.

“I have always said I agree with the intent of this bill to provide for pesticide use disclosure, create meaningful buffer zones and conduct a study on the health and environmental issues relating to pesticide use on Kauai,” the mayor said in a statement. “However, I believe strongly that this bill is legally flawed. That being the case, I had no choice but to veto.” In the wake of his veto, all hell broke loose.

This frenzied and frightening reaction may be a case of a handful of fringe crazies—but maybe not. Based on the recent history of how this public “discussion” has unfolded in Kaua’i, there is every reason to believe that anti-GMO fervor has run off the rails, and now threatens to crystallize into a dangerous public mania.

In the 17th century, women in and around the Massachusetts town of Salem were arrested, imprisoned and often tried because a majority of the populace, or an outspoken minority that intimidated others into remaining quiescent, took the law into their own hands. There was no empirical evidence that the accused were in fact witches; people just believed it was true. Emotions ran wild. The episode marks one of the nation’s most notorious cases of mass hysteria, and stands as a vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, extremism and false accusations—and the substitution of emotion for science.

We’ve had lesser examples since then of precipitous actions by fevered majorities, including hysteria over the teaching of evolution; opposition to empowering American blacks; and protection of the basic rights of gay people in the United States. We’ve seen hints of this kind of intolerance in fringe elements of the tea party movement. In every case, fear was substituted for empirical evidence.

Although some may believe that suggesting parallels with the fringe elements of the anti-GMO movement in Kaua’i is strained, I would push back. I faced a barrage of over-the-top anger when I visited the islands for a week in August in an attempt to engage islanders in rational, fact-based discussions about the issues. I saw no Aloha when it came to discussing GMOs—and all of the finger pointing and hysteria came from one side and one side only: those who believed, with religious-like fervor, that GMOs posed an imminent health and safety danger to them and their children. The scientific consensus clearly contradicts those hysterical claims, as heartfelt as they may be.

There are legitimate issues on the table in Kaua’i, particularly as to the consensus desire that seed companies be more transparent in disclosing pesticide treatments. The empirical evidence, and numerous state and federal investigations, have concluded that current practices are safe and legal. But reasonable disclosures beyond what is required by current law are a fair issue for discussion. New restrictions are inevitable The State of Hawai’i acknowledges that, and just this week reaffirmed that it will be initiating new pesticide guidelines and increasing inspector positions for enforcement.

“This administration looks forward to working with the Mayor to determine a reasonable, thoughtful, and balanced course of action to address these issues and to provide the assurances of public health, safety, and protection,” wrote a Hawai’i Department of Agriculture chairperson, in a letter to the mayor. He reaffirmed the Mayor’s assessment “that complicated legal issues and practical enforcement and implementation details must be taken into consideration to effectively address community’s concerns.”

But for those dedicated antis looking for a witch to burn, measured responses by the state’s highest officials are not enough. The mayor now literally fears for his life and anyone who dares speak out on behalf of science faces public ridicule. If you are a farmer who grows or supports the growing of genetically modified crops, such as Rainbow papaya, you face a real possibility that your farm will be vandalized and your business destroyed.

Sadly, these frequent outbursts of intolerance have become staples of the anti-biotech movement on Kauai’i and increasingly on the mainland. Web pages like GMO Free Hawaii and Occupy Monsanto-Hawaii are repositories of vitriol and hate. The so-called pro-GMO forces—I hesitate to use the word “pro” because all of the GMO “supporters” freely acknowledge that there are challenging issues and legitimate public concerns—have been calm and reasonable to a fault. That was almost never true of anti-GMO activists. They were consistently rude and abusive.

A website, NGO Means No Aloha, poignantly summarizes the consistent stream of threats by anti-GMO activists. It was forced to remove an example of an emotional outburst by anti-GMO activists during the debate over Bill 2491, but otherwise has numerous illustrations of the way GMO opponents have comported themselves in recent months. For example, it links to University of Florida geneticist Kevin Folta’s interaction with Kauai activist Christi Demuth and the death threats that followed trips to Hawaii by Kevin and Karl Haro von Mogel, a University of Wisconsin graduate student. And it provides examples of web postings clearly designed to intimidate and squelch a science-based discussion of the issues. Scary stuff.

What about the charge, leveled by some anti-GMO activists, that scientists that claim they believe GMOs are unsafe are systematically threatened and discredited? Professor Folta recently addressed that allegation in a thoughtful essay:

A systematic response is what we see in response to highly questionable findings. It is not a conspiracy or some organized effort. The systematic response is triggered when scientists see examples where science is potentially being manipulated or presented as rhetoric—making some sort of statement that is fraudulent, false or highly questionable. Scientists jump on it. There is no conspiracy, it is a reaction of a scientific community that plays by specific rules.

Threats? Scientists don’t make many threats. If researchers are engaged in dodgy work they sometimes can face institutional charges for academic misconduct, but usually they fade to scientific irrelevance. Nobody believes their junk…. Except for the lay people duped by the bad science!

There are cases when ‘majority rule’ is a fig leaf for majority hysteria—and that appears to be the case in much of Hawai’i today when the issue of GMOs is debated. There is no Aloha on Kaua’i; I smell the burning of witches. And the responsibility for that falls directly on the shoulders of the extremists in the anti-GMO movement—and the mainstream leaders who do not have the integrity to denounce them, and in fact often egg them on.

“These people are the extremists that leaders are working with to make laws,” notes the website.  “It’s no wonder why the community remains divided.”

Are you listening Gary Hooser?

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication and STATS (Statistical Assessment Service) at George Mason University.

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  • RobertWager

    Unfortunately many who defend the science or GE technology are often attacked. I have had many threats, and attempts of intimidation as well as calls to my employer to shut me up or fire me. It seems academic freedom is only important to some if the academic agrees with their ideas. Pity as this type of activity keeps other scientists from speaking their minds on public policy issues of science.

  • Scweringhast

    I disagree that there is no science to support the anti-GMO position; but that is not the intent of this comment. I believe part of the increasingly violent reactions coming from the anti-GMO side parallel similar reactions when any group feel they are being ignored and have no say in their government. This is increasing exponentially as the U.S. becomes increasingly a government by the rich and powerful at the expense of all ‘lesser beings’. The push to just be honest (Label It) brings retaliation from the multinational corporations – “Oh, we couldn’t be honest!” – you lesser beings just wouldn’t understand. I see the same tone in your article. I’m both a scientist and an engineer and am well aware of the lies and truths flying about on both sides. May you enjoy your flat earth.

    • FosterBoondoggle

      Here’s the puzzle, though. I get that you think the anti-GE zealots are right on the facts, but just suppose for argument that they’re actually wrong. What are the people who are arguing on the other side supposed to do? Just shut up in the face of what they believe to be factually wrong advocacy for new laws, out of fear for their safety? Let the antis own the microphone, regardless of what anyone else thinks?

      And what “retaliation” from MNCs are you talking about here? Did Monsanto threaten someone with bodily harm for their advocacy? If you’re going to say Monsanto has used lawsuits to silence anti-GE advocates, please provide a reference that’s not from one of the polemical anti-GE sites — one that someone who hasn’t already bought the whole world view would find persuasive. Thanks.

      • Steve

        Watch Food, Inc. for evidence of Monsanto threats (and more) of retaliation to farmer’s and other’s livelihoods. Certainly relevant to this discussion.

        • FosterBoondoggle

          The only part of that movie that relates to Monsanto is about them suing farmers who *knowingly* save & replant their seeds without paying the “technology fee”. They go after farmers who *want* the GM seeds but don’t want to pay for them. That’s pretty much the opposite of what was being claimed vis-a-vis “retaliation” for opposition to GMOs.

    • http://www.chucklasker.com/ Chuck Lasker

      Your comment is interesting on many levels.

      First, you say “I disagree that there is no science to support the anti-GMO position.” I’m not sure what article you read, but that claim is not made in THIS article.

      Second, I agree that the anti-GMO group “feels they are being ignored and have no say in their government.” The question is whether that is true. From what I can see they feel that way only when they don’t get their way. They’ve had dozens of hours of testimony opportunities, have had an anti-GMO parade here, have blitzed social media and letters to the editor. The bill even passed at County Council level. They’ve been heard, but, in the end, they lost. Sometimes you are heard, and you lose, in a free society. Losing does not mean you have a right to be violent. It’s not that they are unheard, it’s that they are upset the other side is heard, and it’s not that they don’t have a say, it’s that they are upset their say is not the ONLY say.

      Third, after condemning “retaliation” from companies (which I guess is your word for defending their position, since I have not seen “retaliation” in the normal sense of the word from any of these companies), you insult the writer of the article. Ironically, you do that by saying “enjoy your flat earth.” If there’s anyone who is using flat earth thinking, it’s the anti-GMO extremists who dismiss ALL the valid peer-reviewed science and will promote the most ridiculous pseudo-science for their cause.

      Finally, I’ll say that labeling was never mentioned in the article, but it’s always thrown out by the anti-GMO crowd as being “right to know” or “honest,” even when it’s not the topic of conversation, to try to make yourself seem reasonable. “Hey, we only want to know what’s in our food,” y’all say, but nobody is fooled any more by that. We know the true agenda behind labeling.

    • Bernie Mooney

      “May you enjoy your flat earth.” The Galileo Gambit. Really? You’re a scientist?

    • Loren Eaton

      ‘I disagree that there is no science to support the anti-GMO position.’ Oh there’s science alright…the kind supported by those who think Jerry Springer is a serious journalist.

      ‘I believe part of the increasingly violent reactions coming from the anti-GMO side parallel similar reactions when any group feel they are being ignored…’ Who’s threatening you? The ONLY violence in the last 15 YEARS has been perpetrated by anti-GM types and animal rights yo-yos: vandalism, arson and now death threats, most recently toward the mayor in Hawaii.

      ‘no say in their government..’ Don’t conflate that with not getting your way. The Mayor fully realizes that this ‘measure’ is most likely unconstitutional and the veto will most likely save his taxpayers (all of them) a boatload of money.

    • RobertWager

      I see you go by quite a few handles. I saw your exact words last night under a different name. care to tell this forum your real name? As for science supporting the anti-GMO activists, sorry there is none according to the skeptical European Science.

      There is no validated evidence that GM crops have greater adverse impact on health and the environment than any other technology used in plant breeding. There is compelling evidence that GM crops can contribute to sustainable development goals with benefits to farmers, consumers, the environment and the economy” . European Academic Science Advisory Council (2013)

  • Christi Demuth

    I have made my mark in history thanks the Poison Protection Specialists Entine, Folta, and Von Mogul. I wear this post as a badge of honor for the rest of my days. Poisoning paradise and it’s people will be your everlasting mark.

    • Karl Haro von Mogel

      That mark in history apparently doesn’t come with spelling my name right. As I recall, after showing the world that she will go after anyone for anything to try to score a political point – including personal tragedies, Christi went halfway around the island to confront us, but didn’t bother to walk up a few steps to actually do so.
      Poisoning the dialog will by Christi’s historical legacy, and nothing else.

      • Christi Demuth

        The only poisoning going on around here is by the corporations you are paid to defend. I had nothing to say to you. The people who did talk to you realized it was nothing but lies. I came to sit in silent protest of your visit and if you return I will be there again. You people don’t scare me. Apologies for spelling your name wrong, we definitely want it spelled right for the history books.. The children of the future will know what you are and what you defended. .

        • FosterBoondoggle

          So much hate.

        • Karl Haro von Mogel

          Once again, you show your true colors. You know I was not paid for coming there. I also did not defend any companies. Tell me one thing I said in defense of the companies. I came to talk about what I knew about the science of genetic engineering, and to a lesser extent, pesticides.
          You had plenty to say to me, but only across a keyboard, or on the radio. I doubt you could name a single thing I said that day, because the other folks were far too concerned with trying to pin Jon down on something that I walked over to hang out and talk to Jimmy about bees. You should take a lesson from Jimmy Trujillo, he’s a great guy.
          You are demonstrating exactly what this article argues. This hyperbolic rhetoric is exactly why people have seen fit to make threats of harm against other people. And 95% of it is coming from one side on Kaua’i.

      • First Officer
  • Val

    YES. Well written. Thank you.

  • Drew

    They have hicks in Hawaii too? Wow…

  • Apikoros

    God forbid a community be allowed to decide what it eats. Science or not (and I’m done believing anything from the Right) it should be their right to ban these things. I tend to not see GMOs as dangerous, but I’m not a scientist and wouldn’t be the least surprised if in twenty years we are having a conversation about how wrong we were.

    • http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/ Jon Entine

      Nothing is stopping a community from choosing what it eats….unless the anti-GMO forces block certain foods from being sold, which is exactly their agenda. As of now, anyone can buy non-GMO products–they are called organic or those with non-GMO voluntary labels. Plus, there are no fruits or vegetables or grains in the US other than some corn and soy and Rainbow papaya–so almost all fruits and vegetables are non GMO. The issue raised in this article was about the deterioration of the public debate–threats of violence and examples of pure vitriol from those intolerant of rational discourse.

      • Apikoros

        Rational discourse? Endless propagandizing in media on behalf of corporate interests, misinformation campaigns and mercenary science is not rational. If Global Corporate Socialism wants it done, it will be done, sooner or later. It’s only later that we find out how wrong we were to believe them. Like the thriving “service economy” they were selling us on while shipping half the economy to a communist country. Or the banking/finance de-regulation they spent forty years demanding, because it would benefit us all – then exploded the economy. Or the WMDs in Iraq. It just goes on and on.

        It’s not unreasonable at all to assume that whatever the corporate commies are selling to a community will have unseen consequences. Civility almost seems naive and derelict.

        • http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/ Jon Entine

          Quite an irrational rant. Yes, the world is one big conspiracy, directed against kind-hearted and wise people like you.

          • Apikoros

            People don’t believe them any more. Colorado has all but banned fracking, science notwithstanding. Look for more of this.

      • http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/ Jon Entine

        Thank you for your thoughtful observations. It is disturbing that the level of discourse has deteriorated so sharply in Hawaii. I wish I was more optimistic about the prospects for turning things around, but I fear more rancor is in store.

    • Guest

      You disgrace the name of “Apikoros”. An apikoros is an independent thinker who is free of the community groupthink.

    • Apikoros

      Pithy.

  • Lana

    Finally, an article worth the community’s attention! Thank you Jon Entine. I was wondering when someone (anyone) was going to notice the death threats, scare tactics, bullying, and demoralization emanating from the other (anti-GMO) side and then actually say something about it.

  • http://honoluluaunty.com/ Honolulu Aunty

    Interesting dialogue. Reminds me of something that I was told many years ago when I was “fighting” for something that I believed in. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

    I watched the 33 minutes of rather rude passionate people who called the Kauai mayor many hurtful things. They squeaked and squeaked and squeaked. They accused, they threw out arguments that were silly (the mayor purposefully met them at that time and that hour so it conflicted with their Halloween time with their kids – really?), they repeated the same things over and over, interrupted constantly as they refused to listen to anything the mayor had to say, but expected him to listen to everything they had to hurl at him. And he did listen. For that, I give him a lot of credit.

    I was first introduced to the anti-GMO movement years ago and after reading all the literature, I thought that GMO must be bad for us. Then I heard about how farmers were penalized, sued, and fined by the big pesticide and seed companies because they didn’t follow their rules, and I thought that the GMO companies are really bad.

    Then I watched how the anti-GMO people in the video acted, and this turned around the way I thought about GMO and the companies that develop GMO crops, giving them the benefit of the doubt, but how can they present their side to antagonists that want to yell but not sit down and listen?

    I was ashamed of how people of Hawaii can behave. It reminded me of how several Kauai people stopped the Super Shuttle from entering Nawiliwili Harbor, made a lot of noise about environmental issues, and the Super Shuttle left the islands. Was that really a victory for Hawaii, or was it a victory for the ones that know how and are willing to squeak, squeak, and squeak?

    Do we really want our Hawaii to become a place where rudeness and louder voices prevail over sitting down together and figuring out what will work out for the best of all of Hawaii?

    Change happens. It is just the way it is. I believe agreements made with compassion and logic are better than cumbersome laws that may get in the way of progress in the future.

    A squeaky wheel that is loud and abrasive doesn’t deserve the grease. It may teach people a bad lesson that loud and abrasive is best. Anger does not help to reach a solution. Laws about GMO companies should not be made on a county level.

    The more I think about this 33 minute video, posted by an anti-GMO community member, the more I respect Mayor Carvalho and the tough decision he made to veto the bill. If he erred, it was on the side of caution. Much better than to go with the volume of noise.

    With aloha,

    Aunty

    • Loren Eaton

      Well stated. As usual with the anti-GM movement, all the grease in the world doesn’t fix a flat tire.

  • McNamara

    A GMO-Free Kauai local Mom, debates with Jon Entine at the Kauai Farmer’s Market. Jon and other Pro-GMO lobbyists are on Kauai to lobby against GMO Bill 2491, the “Right to Know” Bill currently before Kauai County Council.

    They were flown in by the HCIA BioTech association, and part of their PR campaign is to stop by local farmer’s markets to discuss GMO’s, Pesticides and Biotech with organic farmers, from the position that it’s safe for us on Kauai, and that we should trust the GMo BioTech industry scientists.

    There is a heated discussion around Atrazine, which was found in Waimea Middle School drinking water here on Kauai, the use of restricted use pesticides on Kauai, and the moratorium on new experimental GMO’s until environmental assessments can be done on Kauai.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ad6zEnCTcK8

  • JonathanLaine

    The issue here, that appears to be convoluted on at least one side, is that the people off Kauai are tired of being taken advantage of. The gm companies are the latest and most threatening faceless adversary that they have had to defend themselves from. What is at risk it’s their homes and their ability to grow food that has not been contaminated by the biotech agro businesses. These companies chose Kauai because of it’s long growing season, it’s rainfall, and it’s remote location. The fact that Kauai is furthest island, controlled by the U.S., away from any other continent, is a major factor in this issue. There are experiments that my go awry being conducted. If something did go wrong, it would be the people of Kauai who pay the ultimate price. Things have gone wrong already. Thare people are doing what anyone would do if their homes and families were being threatened.
    This issue isn’t about peer reviews or psudo-science. It is about an invasion from a giant faceless beast. This article likens the locals attitude to a witch-hunt. I say it is more like David and Goliath. I intend no harsh feelings to either side, for there are more than 2. Understand that what you read may not be the proper perspective to an issue that you unknowingly misunderstand.

    • http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/ Jon Entine

      Jonathan, the companies that are on Kauai have been there for 3-4-5 decades. They are made up of people. They are the antithesis of ‘faceless beasts’ unless you want to play the juvenile ‘all corporations are evil’ card (and if that’s the case then there is no room for dialogue). You talk about “experiments” but the reality is that the companies have small outposts that are just growing crops. They have nurseries. IT could not be more benign, and yet, from a science perspective, more hopeful. You can conjure up evil images of Frankenstein’s scientists, but that’s not the reality of what’s going in Kauai or the other islands. I’ve toured the facilities and also been in dozens of farm facilities in four decades of reporting. There is literally nothing to go “awry,” unless you believe anti-science propaganda. Read over Amy Harmon’s piece in today’s NY Times about how the anti-GMO forces have aligned themselves with conspiracy theorists and anti-science cranks: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/05/us/on-hawaii-a-lonely-quest-for-facts-about-gmos.html?_r=0 Sadly, the “self-proclaimed” liberal community of Hawaii has embraced the worst form of reactionary anti-science–out of step with modern genetics and farming and food policy.

      • JonathanLaine

        Thank you, Jon, for your polite and prompt response. Do you have any idea why the gmo farms have donkeys tied up around the perimeter of their fields? Also, I am not demonizing science. It is a fact that the gm rainbow papaya has taken over on the islands to the near extinction of the non gmo varieties. This is something that can happen with all of the gmo crops. There is no true containment of the crops. The people who work in those facilities do have faced, yes. They are people much like you and I. They believe that what they are doing is right, at least right for them. The problem is that what they think it’s right is to the detriment of what the locals of Kauai think it’s right. Those people moved there for biotech jobs and earn quite a bit of money for what they think is right. The people who live next to those fields are not getting paid to uphold their opinion. They live and have lived there for centuries before the biotech companies crept in. There was never anything wrong with the old ways of growing food. We have yet to find out about this new method. It is a gamble. A gamble with the lives of the people who live there and their children’s lives for years to come. A huge rik all for the profit of huge multinational corporations that really could care less about the people whose lives they directly effect on daily basis.

        • http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/ Jon Entine

          Jonathan, I would like to hear more as to why you think GMO papaya’s are “taking over” from non-GMO varieties. I visited both types of farms. From what both farmers told me, there would be no viable papaya on Hawaii without the GMO variety, for a number of reasons. The virus would have wiped out all non-GMO papaya for one. And two, the proliferation of GMO papaya has reduced the presence of the virus, in effect throwing a halo over the non-GMO variety. There was a study on this released mid-year last year which concluded that there would be no viable non-GMO crop without the GMO variety. So…the allegation that GMO papayas are “taking over” seems hyperbolic and even deceptive. You could more accurately say that the GMO variety save and allows for the indulgence of a non-GMO version—the farmers are ‘free riders,’ meaning they make a price profit yet the GMO farmers pay the costs for that. On your other points, there is no scientific evidence that GMO crops are “gamble” or even a “new method.” Those are anti-GMO code words—if you read real science publications, such as from the World Health Organisation, the National Academy of Sciences or the European Food Safety Authority, you will never find such language. Humans have been genetically altering foods for centuries; now we have the ability to do it precisely rather than randomly, and in fact dramatically minimize the risks for the greater good. So…in short, there is no “huge risk” except in the minds of hardened critics. I also question whether the people of Kauai feel quite as you do on this. If people had facts instead of fears to digest, the story would be quite different. Golden Rice, vitamin enhanced papaya, more sustainable crops–these are all innovations that help people, reduce hunger and take pressure off of our environment. The “old way” of growing food, which you venerate–that’s before the Green Revolution–was a disaster, with hundreds of people dying of hunger every year. We’ve made a huge dent in global hunger with modern technology, and the challenges are even more severe in the decades ahead–we need to double food supplies in 30 years. The old way–organic farming–would be a true ecological and production disaster. I hope you’ll rethink what I believe is a terrible short sighted and selfish view. Kauai can play a huge role in food security–for everyone.

          • Jonathan

            Pardon me, Jon. How could I expect you to be open to understand my point of view. The name of this website alone is enough for me to understand that there is no chance of having my voice heard by you.
            You are programmed as well as a programmer. Maybe I’d you reread mutt previous posts, disregard any off the key words that trigger your responses and try to understand what I am attempting to have you understand. No response is necessary.I will not be coming back here. There is no reason for the debate to continue. Take a moment to meditate on my words. Relax your logic brain and open up to the creative and compassionate reserves that you must carry with you. Farewell.