With the keiki leading the way, a demonstration march against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) came down the highway, past Monsanto’s cornfields and into Kaunakakai Saturday morning.
The march was the culmination of five “March in March” demonstrations that took place over five Saturdays on five Hawaiian islands. Marches had already been held in Hale’iwa, Oahu (March 2), Kaua’i (March 9), Big Island (March 16) and Maui (March 23).
Mercy Ritte, founder of the local organizing group “Moms on a Mission – What We Love, We Will Protect,” estimated that 200 people participated in the march that left Kulana ‘Oiwi at 9 a.m. “Mahalo to the mothers and fathers from Kauai, Oʻahu and Maui for their amazing, unconditional support,” said Ritte. “We are all connected!”
“The turnout we had for Saturdayʻs event is evidence that the GMO issue and concerns surrounding Monsanto, their farming practices, and their open-air field experiments is widespread,” Ritte added. “This is not a Molokai issue, it is a global issue! Iʻm involved because I care too much about my childrenʻs health, well-being and their future. It is all about them, bottom line!”
Spread across the central and western portions of Molokai, Monsanto has about 500 acres of fields growing GMO corn seed for use by farmers on the mainland. These patented genes, many of which contain the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin, produces a substance that prevents, destroys, repels or mitigates pests. The Bt toxin is inserted into corn crops, allowing farmers to control pests without spraying as much pesticides. Monsanto also produces a GMO “Roundup ready” seed that is resistant to the herbicide Roundup, also produced by Monsanto.
The U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), has stated that the process of genetic engineering and conventional breeding pose similar risks of unintended consequences. However, the NAS has also criticized the GMO industry, reporting that regulation may be improved by making the process more transparent and rigorous. The NAS recommended enhanced scientific peer review that seeks more public input and better presentations of data, methods and interpretations.
Monsanto has also been criticized for fighting the proposed legislation calling for the labeling of foods made from GMO products. Hawaii became one of 14 states seeking mandatory labeling of GMO foods. “Hawaii prides itself on leading the nation in efforts to protect the safety of our food and the health of our environment,” wrote the “Label it Hawaii” group. Last year the Honolulu City Council passed a resolution supporting GMO food labeling although it hasn’t yet passed the state legislature.
Walking in front of the march on Saturday was longtime Molokai activist Walter Ritte (Mercy’s father-in-law). Last year Ritte led a state legislative effort to ban GMO taro. The legislation, which also required biotech companies to reveal where they’re conducting field trials, did not pass.
This message of requiring greater transparency from Monsanto and Mycogen, another Molokai company that grows transgenic seeds, came across from many of the marchers.
“We would like to see Monsanto and the GMO project out of here,” said local ukulele maker Jaide Bruhjell. “We’re tired of being poisoned in our air, water and our food.”
“[I’m marching] for the future of the children because this is killing us slowly,” said Molokai’s Barry Vickery.
“I’m marching today because of the pesticides that these companies use and the inability to keep them on their own fields,” said Ua Ritte, Walter’s son and Mercy’s husband. “People want proof and the proof is in the people. We have a lot of sick people on this island — cancer, diabetes, ADHD, asthma — all these things are side effects of pesticides. People are putting the dots together. If you do a little bit of your homework you can see the clear connection between pesticide use and all these ailments, this is a sick island.”
While Ua Ritte said he supports the Monsanto workers (Monsanto is the largest employer on Molokai), he would like to seem the company keep its pesticides in its fields. “Maybe they should build a housing project in the fields and all the people who support this (GMOs) can live in the fields; they can reap what they sow.”
Since 1989, Jeanette Kahalehoe has lived in her homestead house across the street from Monsanto’s fields below Manilla Camp west of Kaunakakai. In 1995 she was diagnosed with asthma and believes the GMO crops may be responsible.
After researching GMOS, Kahalehoe has reached the conclusion that they are not healthy. “Many don’t understand today,” she said. “Without knowing what kind of chemicals the government has allowed GMO (producers) to use in their plants, and whatever they are doing, it is probably worse than the pineapple fields and we won’t be able to deal with it because it’s a closed door issue in terms of what they’re doing and what they’re planning. Some of it we know, like Roundup, but many of it we don’t know and that’s a greater danger.”
Kahalehoe compares the GMO issue to the one faced by residents when the large pineapple growers dominated Molokai. “We went through this with the pineapple companies that didn’t know there was heptachlor and DDT that was dangerous for people’s health,” she said. “Native Hawaiians have the highest health issues in the islands and this little island we have so little resources for ourselves that we have to malama, care for, those resources and we have to look at not only today but for tomorrow’s people, the children.”
High levels of heptachlor in the soils of west Molokai have been linked to high infant mortality rates and increased rates of cancer. Although the connection between heptachlor and cancer rates has been established, legal action holding the large pineapple companies responsible has not been successful.
Kahalehoe said many of her neighbors and their children have also gone through health issues. “I have also heard about people in [Manilla] Camp having different types of health issues, which they’ve never had before, things which doctors can’t describe what causes them. It’s a scary thing to deal with, something you don’t know enough about.”
Increased transparency from Monsanto is needed, Kahalehoe believes. “They (Monsanto) should look at being more open and honest with the community in terms of what is really there that they have to be concerned about. Until they do that there will always be a sense of uncomfortableness and distrust.”
Once the march on Saturday completed a lap through Kaunakakai, it concluded on the library lawn at 10 a.m. with live music by Uncle Eddie Tanaka and Rick Schonley, Bryson, Uncle Wayde & Justin, Hawaiiloa Mowat, keiki activities, speakers, an information booth and a potluck meal. Speakers included Dustin Barca, a professional Mixed Martial Arts fighter and surfer from North Shore of Oahu.
“I am so, so pleased with how the march unfolded and mahalo for everyone’s contributions,” said Mercy Ritte. “The weather was absolutely perfect! Our fierce, dedicated moms definitely set the tone with ‘E Iho Ana’ and by placing our keiki at the forefront of the march through town. This shows that they are our ‘Keiki Aloha ʻAina Warriors,’ our leaders of today and tomorrow! I also want to acknowledge our strong fathers who empower and support our mothers. Their presence is key!”