Rooting for the Wrong Side?

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According to Atay, the GMO initiative merely asks farmers to prove that their methods are safe and pono (righteous).

Maui County’s health officer and a consultant to the World Health Organization, Dr. Lorrin Pang also cosigned the moratorium. Since 2001, he’s advocated for more testing on the potential side effects of GMOs. Biotech industry supporters claim that Americans have consumed a trillion servings of GMOs, proving their safety. Pang asks: How many cigarettes did we smoke before we acknowledged they cause cancer? How many more did we smoke before acknowledging the danger of second-hand smoke?

Questions like these helped SHAKA volunteers obtain many more than the 8,500 signatures necessary to put the issue to vote. They held rallies, marched down Ka‘ahumanu Avenue in Kahului, and shared their concerns about GMOs with their neighbors. Testimonies before the County Council were long on passion, but short on facts. People expressed fears that chemicals used by the seed companies have increased local instances of birth defects, cancer, and autism, without producing the data to substantiate these claims.

Meanwhile, the pro-GMO contingent flooded local mailboxes, television and radio stations with slick ads designed to look as though opposition came from small, family farmers whose livelihoods hung in the balance — never mentioning the big companies funding them. Commercials broadcast half-truths: that the moratorium is a ban on farming (it isn’t; it only affects GMO crops) and that genetic engineering is no different than conventional breeding (not exactly true). The debate got ugly. People resorted to attacking one other’s character, and a few agitators sprayed anti-GMO graffiti on public buildings.

Atay believes that local support swung over to SHAKA after news reports revealed how much Monsanto and Dow AgroScience spent fighting the measure. On election night, Atay says, “I looked around and saw young Hawaiians participating in the process and experiencing a small victory. That gave me hope for the future.”

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