The Green Leaf

Q&A: Ashley Lukens

June 8th, 2015



Ashley Lukens, program director of the Hawai‘i Center for Food Safety, did not initially set out to be part of the GMO fight in Hawaii. The former co-owner of Baby Awearness, a Manoa boutique selling reusable diapers and other products for eco-minded parents, focused her dissertation at the University of Hawaii at Manoa on food policy. It was entitled "Theorizing Food Justice: Critical Positionality and the Political Economy of Community Food Systems." She is also a founding member of the Hawaii Food Policy Council.

ashley_lukensBut she was working for another non-profit when the phone call from the center came, recruiting her to head up a Hawaii office. Little did she know at the time she would be stepping up to the plate in the battle for more regulations and transparency of GE crops in Hawaii.

The Washington D.C. based Center for Food Safety, a national non-profit public interest and environmental advocacy organization, was founded by public interest attorney Andrew Kimbrell 15 years ago. Though the Hawaii office just opened last April, the center played a role in the protest of kalo patents here nine years ago and is currently involved in the legal wranglings of GE regulation issues in three counties: Kauai, Hawaii and Maui.

"Pesticides in Paradise: Hawai‘i's Health & Environment At Risk," published in May, is a detailed review of the status of the GE crop field trials in Hawaii, as well as the use of pesticides in these field trials, and their impact on human and environmental health.

Among its key findings:

>> Since 1987, Hawaii has hosted more cumulative field trials — 3,243 — than any other state. Last year, 178 different GE field tests were conducted on more than 1,381 sites in Hawaii (compare this to only 175 sites in California). From 2007 to 2012, DuPont-Pioneer applied 90 different pesticide formulations containing 63 different active ingredients on Kauai.

>> The seed industry's footprint, at nearly 25,000 acres, is 72 percent of the total area planted to crops, other than sugarcane or pineapple. The majority of plants being tested are corn and soy, not niche crops such as papaya or banana. Over the past five years, the most frequently tested trait in GE crop field tests in Hawaii was herbicide-resistance.

>> Due to Hawaii's small size, it has a higher density of field tests than other states. More people in Hawaii live in closer proximity to field test sites, running a higher risk of experiencing pesticide drift.

The Green Leaf sat down for a conversation with Lukens.

Q: So you weren't interested initially interested in wading into the GMO debate in Hawaii?

A: I was not interested in the debate when it was couched as the papaya (debate), if GE papaya is safe to eat, and I wasn't interested in the labeling debate...I think we should label, as a mom. As owner of Baby Awearness, one of the things that was so overwhelmingly profound to me was the new sense of responsibility that parents felt for the health and safety of their kids, to the extent they were willing to radically change things about their lives. What Baby Awearness did was provide them with information they needed to make decisions. To me, that was the labeling conversation...

Q: What changed your mind?

A: So I meet this mom named Malia Chun, with two daughters. Her house shares a fenceline with one of these field (in Kekaha, Kauai). In three years, she's developed adult asthma and her daughters have chronic respiratory issues and nosebleeds. She's debating the prospect of sending her children to Waimea Canyon Middle School because that school's been evacuated three times (due to suspected incidents of pesticide drift)...I started to think, this isn't an issue about labeling, this is an environmental justice issue...

Q: Are GE crops and pesticides inextricably linked?

A: I think before Center for Food Safety entered the fray and tried to clarify the debate, it was about papaya, it was about what corn you could eat....This pesticide report emerges from my need to figure out what was going on...[The "Pesticides in Paradise" report] examines what's going on, where are these companies, what are they growing and what pesticides are they using? I wanted to know all the available data and also the gaps in the data...

Q: Where did you get the data?

A: Some of the information was released from the Pioneer dust class action suit (a federal court jury awarded $507,090 to 15 Waimea residents in May). You can dig into the data on a publicly available website reporting (U.S. Department of Agriculture) field trial permits every year, but it's not user-friendly...The first thing I learned was that Hawaii hosts more field trials than any other state in the nation...

And then we said, okay, what are the field trials for? Eighty-seven percent of the plants were being genetically engineered for herbicide tolerance.  This means that plants genetically engineered in Hawaii, by and large, are engineered to resist ever greater application of herbicides...So that to me really clarified that, in Hawaii, the issue of genetic engineering is not the issue of whether it's safe to eat, the issue is whether these plants are safe to develop and grow.

We're not simply growing deregulated GE corn varieties. The [seed] companies will often say, well these products have already been approved. They've been proven safe. They get exemptions because they're field trials. They are, by definition, experimental...Most of it is corn and soy...Who holds the most permits? Monsanto, Pioneer, Syngenta, Dow Chemical, Dupont-Pioneer....Only Kauai requires that companies report the pesticides they're spraying because of the victory of the community passing ordinance 960 [which in turn was struck down by a federal judge]. The mayor asked the companies to participate in a voluntary report and they did, so over the year I've been running the office we've been getting monthly reports [from the Kauai Good Neighbor Program].

Q: And what are the consequences for people who live here?

A: The other thing we found out is that Hawaii has a much higher population density than the states that are also hosting high volumes. And a lot of our communities live in agricultural spaces....With a cursory review of data, what was different about Hawaii was clear, the relationship between GEs and pesticides was clear. What exactly is the pesticide use, is where it becomes really scary because, by and large, we have no idea what these companies are doing...The second part of the report really digs into the pesticide use associated with GE field trials on Kauai and it makes an argument that disclosure is necessary statewide because we only have this data for Kauai.

Q: What was the most alarming finding?

A: The amount of chlorpyrifos these companies are using. Chlorpyrifos is a very well researched pesticide. One of the things these companies will say is you can't prove that the health problems in these communities are related to pesticide use...So I think it's the responsibility of the state to say, where else have these studies been done? Those studies already do exist...I think the science is clear and it is incumbent on the state to put protection measures in place for our kupuna and our children...

Q: What do you hope releasing this report to the public accomplishes?

A: At the end of the day, it's giving the public access to the information they need to be informed advocates. We need to be asking, what types of policy are we making? There's the larger question about what a state like Hawaii should be doing with its prime agricultural lands. This industry's expanding. We don't have the regulations on the books that respond to the ag practices of these companies. Our ag regulations were developed for sugar and pineapple...

We're increasingly food insecure, importing upwards of 85, 90 percent of our food annually. We need to be asking, as a state, what types of policies are we pursuing to ensure that we grow enough food to sustain our population?...Ag self sufficiency means the products that come off the farm in Hawaii feed Hawaii. [GE seed crops]  are an export-oriented industry. We need to ask ourselves, for our long-term economic sustainability, do we really want to be making GE seed crops the third leg of our economy? It seems foolish to me.

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