“That farm” is the Kunia research farm, which sits just opposite the volcanic mountain range from the North Shore, halfway up a small, shack-lined road. It is unassuming from the outside. A man wearing a Jurassic Park-looking uniform lets me in through the gate, and I am introduced to two scientist-farmers who take me on a tour of the property. The farm is virtually all corn and soybean, and as we drive for hours they point out the sustainability of the operation: the terraces, the drip irrigation. They show me an area that has been donated to small-scale local farmers who grow produce there, some of it organic, to sell at farmers’ markets. It’s not a nightmare factory out of The X Files. It is the picture of American ingenuity, but American ingenuity is not the Hawaiian dream.
When I raise the protesters’ concerns about cross-pollination destroying native species, Monsanto representatives point out that corn doesn’t cross-pollinate with anything on the islands and has no relatives here, so there’s no danger. Even if crosspollination isn’t a worry, pesticide runoff still plagues Hawaii. Oahu has its pineapple and sugarcane ghosts. Researchers from Stanford, the University of California and the University of Hawaii have reported on pesticides in the groundwater and fragile reefs damaged by pesticide runoff after decades of largely unregulated rule by big agricultural interests on the island.
But that’s not Monsanto’s past here in Hawaii, and the company claims to be dedicated to custodianship of the land. The company tells me it pulls up and recycles truckloads of plastic from old pineapple fields. But in many Hawaiian eyes—in Rothman’s eyes—there is no difference between the past and the present, which directly affects Hawaiian protesters’ feelings regarding science. Hawaiians were told in the past that the pesticides used on pineapples were good and that DDT spraying to control mosquitoes was good. They, even more than the mainland America population, are loath to believe the science is sound. Critics such as Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist for Consumer Reports, help feed the perception that GMOs are poison. He says, “We now have allergy problems from genetic modification, or adverse effects on bone marrow, liver, kidney and reproductive systems. There have been animal studies, but they need to be followed up on. There is just no control.”
GMO proponents scoff at the lack of scientific rigor on the other side. After I leave the farm I speak with Alison Van Eenennaam, a specialist in animal genomics and biotechnology in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis. She says, “As a scientist, I don’t just get to have a bad feeling about something. There have been 15 years of research, more than 400 scientific studies, and we’ve eaten more than 3 trillion meals. The jury is absolutely in. The overwhelming bulk of the data says there is nothing biologically different in genetically modified food. We eat it. We digest it. It breaks down. It turns into us. In fact, it is a criminal injustice for us not to feed the world with these products, especially in countries where people are dying of starvation instead of obesity. It is morally bankrupt.”
But if there’s anything Rothman doesn’t lack, it is moral outrage. He’s outraged at a company that has essentially patented nature for profit. He’s outraged at technology that has given rise to Roundupresistant weeds that have forced farmers across the country to revert to using more toxic chemicals to protect their crops. Rothman’s distrust is a portion of America’s writ large. For a citizen, the first step toward truth often begins with “just getting to have a bad feeling about something.” And Rothman’s bad feeling is about yet another threat to his vision of the Hawaiian dream. It is about defending his version of the pastel-postcard Miltonian paradise. Oahu is still an island in the middle of the ocean. It still has coconut-scented winds and waves so big and ideal that none have ever been found bigger or better. And he wants to keep it pure. And this dream, even if never true, dies hard.