Poisons In Paradise: Hawaiians Take On Agrochemical Giants

Hawaiians protesting GMOs.
Hawaiians protesting GMOs.
Corine Lesnes

WAIMEA â€" Everyday, Klayton Kubo, 49, does the same pilgrimage across his village of Waimea, on Kauai, an island in the Hawaiian archipelago. He takes the road along the river, parks his pickup on the roadside and climbs up the hill overlooking the agrochemicals factory.

He stands there and observes. On the other side of the acacias, he can see the tractors and their five-meter-long arms spreading pesticides on the fields. He sees the employees and their hazmat suits, and he waits for the dust. The pollution doesn’t come everyday. Sometimes it comes at night, depending on the wind.

Waimea is the cove where British Captain James Cook landed and “discovered” Hawaii in January 1778, according to the commemorative plaque on the statue erected under the bay trees. It's now home to about 2,000 people. Tourists come to visit the red rocks valley people call “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” They don’t suspect that the heavenly setting conceals a silent battle against DuPont-Pioneer, Syngenta and all the GMO Goliaths that have turned Hawaii into a laboratory where they test their modified seeds.

Klayton Kubo has spent all his life in Hawaii, where his grandmother emigrated from Japan. His face is a testimony to the islands’ melting-pot and his English is mixed with Pidgin, Hawaii’s creole language.

To win his confidence, we had to sit on a bench next to the statue of James Cook and undergo what almost felt like a grilling. After that, he went and got food from “Shrimp Station” and decided to eat it on the sports field next to the school. Seven years ago 10 children from the school had to be taken to hospital after vomiting and showing signs of respiratory disorder.

"I don’t speak like their engineers"

Klayton Kubo lives off fishing and off his painting work. But he's also a fighter, a role he assumed more than 10 years ago after Pioneer and Syngenta established laboratories on either side of Waimea, trapping the small town in a vise. Klayton is wary of their maneuvers and of their lawyers.

“They have no respect for us,” he says. Klayton recalls how he had just finished painting his house in 2000 when it was covered with a thick red cloud. He asked Pioneer for an explanation but the company simply retorted “trade secret.” Since then, he’s constantly been hitting the same wall.

“I have no qualifications. I don’t speak like their engineers," he says. "But I do know that they’re spreading massive quantities of poison.” The activist raises his black glasses to show his reddened eyes. “And I don’t consume marijuana!” he says.

Together with 150 inhabitants from Waimea, Klayton Kubo filed a collective complaint against Pioneer in 2011. He’s kept the original petition in his safe. The villagers learnt thanks to the trial that the firm uses 90 mixtures of pesticides for its experiments on corn crops. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which greenlights the chemical use as long as it’s “controlled,” Pioneer spread for more than 200 days per year during five years, between 2007 and 2012.

All together, the companies spray a total of 18 tons of pesticides every year in Kauai. “It’s more than a farmer sprays in his entire life!,” Klayton says.

Wearing out their welcome

Kauai is not the only Hawaiian island being used this way. The isolated Pacific archipelago has become a paradise for multinationals in the agrochemicals industry. The five companies that dominate the global seed market (Monsanto, DuPont-Pioneer, Dow Chemical, Syngenta and BASF) have established themselves there to take advantage of a climate that allows them to harvest three times in the year.

According to Ashley Lukens, the program director for the Center for Food Safety in Honolulu, 178 authorizations to test controlled substances were awarded in 2013 for 1,124 sites. “There are more lab tests in Hawaii than in any other American state,” she says, in spite of the islands’ ridiculously small surface compared to the vast lands of the Midwest.

Since the 1990s, seed companies have been forcing sugar cane and pineapple plantations out of business. When they arrived, they were welcomed as they saved thousands of farm workers their jobs. But the indulgence was short-lived and turned into uproar in an archipelago where “Aloha Aina,” the love of the land, is deeply rooted in each inhabitant.

From Kauai to Molokai and Maui, complaints have multiplied at the initiative of a small group of farmers, organic retailers, educators, “Moms against GMOs,” and Europeans who came to this natural paradise to establish their yoga and meditation centers.

In November 2014, voters in Maui, a tourism hotspot and Monsanto stronghold, voted in favor of imposing a moratorium on GMO testing and growing until a comprehensive study proves they’re not harmful. A first in the U.S., where GMOs are both legal and ubiquitous, representing 90% of corn and soybeans production.

The day after the vote, Dow Chemical filed a complaint against the moratorium, together with Monsanto (whose lawyer Ken Robbins canceled our appointment in Honolulu). Until the federal judge rules on the matter, the moratorium is suspended. “It’s a shame because it was the result of a democratic process,” says Vincent Mina, the president of association Farmers Union United.

Blocked at every turn

In Kauai, people are not asking for GMOs to be banned. They just want “the right to know” what’s being spread on their land. Kauai, also known as the “Garden Isle,” is the most rural of the archipelago, and the cradle of Hawaii’s demand of “food sovereignty” (85% of fruits and vegetables are imported) and of the right to teach again in Hawaiian to prevent the native language from disappearing.

Pollution only adds up to the feeling that Hawaiians are being dispossessed of their land. In the traditional culture, the elements have “their own personality,” explains Molly Ka’imi Summers, professor of Hawaiian and Ethnobotany at the University of Hawaii. “The language has tens of different words for each element.” The words for rain, for example, take up a whole page in an English-Hawaiian dictionary.

Water flows on Kauai. It streams down Mount Waialeale, the wettest spot on earth with an average of 12.2 meters of rainfall every year. Traditionally, each community is responsible for preserving their irrigation ponds, from the top of the mountain all the way to the ocean. “It was a very personal relationship. Nobody would have wanted to make improper use of the water,” recounts Malia Chun, who teaches Hawaiian culture at the University.

Today however, “people are scared that the water is polluted. We don’t know what the companies are spreading,” Elan Goldbart, 23, an agronomist on an organic farm.

The wind used to be a blessing in Hawaii. It also has its own full-page in Molly Summers’ dictionary. But in Waimea, the trades have become an enemy that covers everything in red dust. Malia Chun didn’t suspect a thing until her two daughters started suffering from respiratory disorder. Syngenta was spreading pesticides at the end of her garden but she hadn’t paid attention to it. She now has asthma. The children suffer from headaches, nosebleeds and also asthma.

In late October 2013, the Kauai municipality passed a ruling ordering the four multinationals established there to keep a “buffer zone” near schools and hospitals. The city also called on the companies to reveal which pesticides are being tested and when, “so that we have time to close our windows,” as Malia Chun puts it. But once again, Pioneer, Syngenta and Dow took the case to the court of appeals.

Anti-GMOs activists believe there’s little hope the federal justice system will validate a local decision that goes in the face of national legislation â€"especially since companies have a cast-iron defense: they don’t plant or spread anything that isn’t approved and authorized by the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Agriculture.

Struggling to be heard

On April 28, Malia Chun went as far as Basel, Switzerland, to air her community's grievances in a shareholders’ general assembly at the headquarters of Syngenta, the world’s biggest producer of herbicide, insecticide and fungicide.

Gary Hooser, a Kauai town council member, also spoke at the event, asking the company to stop using in Hawaii half-a-dozen pesticides that are forbidden in Switzerland, such as atrazine, a synthetic herbicide suspected of provoking cancer which was found in the drinking water of Waimea’s school in 2011.

“Treat us with the same dignity you show towards Swiss citizens. Grant us the same protection. Don’t pour on my community chemicals that you can’t spread on yours,” he pleaded. The Hawaiian delegation put forward a petition signed by 7,500 people from Kauai, more than one for every 10 inhabitants. Again, it was quite easy for the company to just reply that these pesticides were allowed for agricultural research in the U.S.

Some in Hawaii have rebranded the Waimea Valley “Poison Valley.” Wendell and Wanda Kabutan fled to Honolulu in search for a sophisticated hospital. A retired teacher, Wanda, 64, hopes she’s defeated cancer. Her husband, a former ground agent for Hawaiian Airlines, suffers from a painful cough.

As is often the case in this sort of situation, nobody could prove any irrefutable scientific correlation between the inhabitants health issues (37 cancers in a neighborhood of 800 inhabitants) and the pesticides. As a result, the court ruled that only the houses’ depreciation could be taken into account in the plea of Waimea’s inhabitants and not the alleged contamination by chemicals. On May 9, the judge granted the first damages, $500,000 per household for 15 of the affected inhabitants.

Pioneer was found guilty of breaching agricultural testing regulations. It’s a first, but the Kabutans have lost faith. They’ve see the grass around their house go brown. They’ve seen dead birds fall on their car, colleagues passing away too early. They’re tired of hearing promises that there won’t be anymore spreading at night, or when the wind is too strong. Or that the test will only take place inside greenhouses.

After our interview, they walk away in small, slow steps, struggling with the weight of a fight that’s too big for them alone to carry. On the continent, their voices may have been heard earlier. But Hawaii is so far away.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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