Hawaii GMO outreach touches thousands

by Joan Conrow

June 20, 2016

What do the daughter of a Hawaii papaya farmer and a Catholic priest from the Philippines have in common?

They both represent tropical communities that have been polarized in recent years around the debate over genetically engineered crops. Hawaii activists have been seeking moratoriums and regulations to stymie cultivation of GE seed crops and papaya in the Islands, and the technology is currently banned from agriculture in the Philippines.

But Joni Kamiya and Emmanuel “Father Noli” Alparce, both 2015 Cornell Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellows,  are striving to counter that opposition with education. They recently teamed up to present their personal stories and grassroots organizing tips to Hawaii farm workers.

They were assisted by Keith Horton and Sarah Thompson, who attended the Alliance’s Leadership and Grassroots Organizing Short-Course in Thailand this past January.The focal point of the late May outreach was the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association annual conference in Honolulu, where they addressed more than 200 persons directly involved with agriculture in the Islands. Father Noli went on to speak to hundreds of biotech farm workers throughout Hawaii.

Their message was threefold: GMO crops can help the world’s poor and hungry; farmers must speak up to share their stories with the general public; be brave in the face of opposition.

“It’s time to heal the community,” Kamiya said. “It’s time to change the conversation around biotechnology.”

Father Noli said the Western-based anti-GMO movement often forgets about the poor in the developing world. “In the Philippines, the only question a father or mother has is, will we have food on our table tonight?” he said. “In the U.S., you have a choice whether to eat organic or not.”

Father Noli also talked about bucking the Catholic Church, which “is still in the dark about biotechnology,” and how public sector scientists in the Philippines are working to advance the technology there.Kamiya said she was subjected to death threats and other harassment when she began blogging about how her family’s Oahu farm was saved by a papaya genetically engineered to resist the devastating ringspot virus.

And Thompson told of being viciously attacked on social media by anti-GMO groups when she publicly testified against fear-based legislation aimed at hobbling Hawaii’s valuable GE parent seed industry. “I walked into the lion’s den having no idea what I was getting into,” she said.

Though it’s often hard for Islanders to overcome cultural constraints against speaking out publicly, Kamiya said they must begin raising their voices. “Local people have to speak up or be run over, and I don’t want to be run over.”

Kamiya and Thompson also coordinated a well-attended break-out session on successful use of social media.

“As new as social media is, it’s defining our lives and work,” Kamiya told participants. “It’s telling our stories, and I don’t like that. If you’re the person who’s afraid to speak up, then you’re letting others define us.”

The two women were later joined by Horton and Father Noli in leading a session on storytelling.

“Speak from the heart,” Father Noli advised the 40 persons in attendance. “If you speak from the heart, how can you go wrong? Never make anything up. Do not lie, ever.”

Horton added: “I’ve worked in agriculture all my life, and I never thought I’d have to defend it. But [GMO opponents] were taking our voices away. I don’t back down from any debate now. People do want to hear from us.”

Kamiya agreed: “We can’t be afraid to hide from what we do. Join in the fight, because that’s where it’s at.”

The day after the conference, Kamiya, Thompson, and Father Noli led a five-hour grassroots training workshop that left participants clamoring for more. Efforts are currently underway to organize a comprehensive training session with Hawaii farm workers later this summer.

Father Noli also made numerous public appearances around the state, speaking to more than 900 seed workers on Maui, Molokai, Kauai and Oahu, as well business and Filipino community leaders around the state.

He also addressed the University of Hawaii College of Law Environmental Council and UP Los Banos, a Filipino community group on Oahu; toured seed farms on four islands; met Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Maui state Rep. Lynn DeCoite, and Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa; and was a guest on “The Conversation,” a popular Hawaii Public Radio talk show.

Father Noli has now returned to the Philippines, where he continues to conduct outreach and educational efforts around GMO crops. Horton has relocated to Montana, where he is working to develop canola rich in omega-3 fatty acids while talking to residents there about the value of GMOs. Thompson, a Kauai resident, and Kamiya, who lives on Oahu, are actively engaged in both grassroots training and social media in the Islands.

“I keep speaking up because we’ve got too much to lose,” Kamiya said.