Hawaii’s reliance on food importance began in the 1960s and has been further exacerbated by the locus for genetically modified (GMO) crop field trials. Kauaʻi in particular has been ground zero for GMO companies like Monsanto and BASF – serial violators of federal environmental laws. In recent years, local Hawaiians have been leading efforts based on old values and land practices to keep the islands healthy and the local population fed.
The controversies over the safety of growing and eating transgenic food are top of mind for Josh Mori, an activist for traditional Hawaiian farming and food sovereignty based in West Kauaʻi. His lived experience as an indigenous farmer resisting the agribusiness industry is a testament to his ancestral roots - shaped by a deep connection to the land, sea, and soil.
Josh is the founder of Iwikua, an educational and cultural resource for sustainable food production, wellness, and community enhancement. In this interview, he shares why teaching the next generation of local farmers how to cultivate the land to benefit West Kauaʻi goes beyond training and education – it’s personal.
This season, we’re honored to join forces with Prism - a nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color to go deep into the stories behind environmental racism. Our co-founder and host Shilpi Chhotray and Prism’s climate justice reporter, Ray Levy Uyeda, examine how local Hawaiian’s are taking back food security and culture from American colonization, and the ongoing threats of climate change, militarism, and tourism.
Key Themes explored:
Tune in to the latest episode, Not my Mainland, to find out. This episode was generously sponsored by the Food and Farm Communications Fund.
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Clip [00:00:02] We can't buy more clean air. We can't buy more clean water. I don't care what you have to say, but we have to adapt or we die.
Clip [00:00:08] The voice of the people is the voice of the advocates. It is the power of organizing. That's what creates the initial change.
Shilpi [00:00:19] This is people over plastic. Welcome to the People Over Plastic podcast. I'm Shilpi Chhotray, your host, plastic pollution activist and media maven. This season, we're honored to join forces with Prism, a nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. Ray Levy Uyeda, Prism's Climate Justice Reporter, helps me break down the facts. We believe you deserve to know the real stories behind climate chaos and society's most pressing injustices. It's time to set the record straight.
Shilpi [00:00:56] Hey, y'all, welcome back. In this episode, we're heading to Kaua'i, Hawaii. Did you know Kaua'i has been a historic hub for GMOs or genetically modified organisms? These companies have been dousing the island with toxic pesticides, but not without a fight. When you think about Hawaii, you think of paradise, right? Pristine beaches and incredible food. Well, we're going to break down what's actually going on and why indigenous farmers are trying to bring back the abundant and thriving land of their ancestors.
Josh [00:01:27] On today's show, I'm excited to introduce you to Josh Mori, the founder of Iwikua, an educational and cultural resource hub for sustainable food production in West Kaua'i. Josh is deeply invested in re-establishing the connection between culture and land that was stolen by American colonization. Let's hear him explain what this actually means in practice.
Josh [00:01:51] When we talk about the regenerative economy. It's not one that is sprawled. It's one that is very much like an inner city. You work and live in the same building and you're down the road. You go walk to the market. And that's something that is foot traffic you can walk your life. And I think that's something that we've seen when the human population ultimately allows us to be sustainable and to thrive. The urban sprawl of the fifties, this whole like, oh, you got to live 45 minutes away from where you work and you can drive. We're seeing the real negative effects on a lot of the things that we do on our planet.
Shilpi [00:02:22] Hawaii imports more than 80% of its food at a cost of 3 billion annually, and nearly 90% of the small farms on the island earn less than 50,000. I also found a study that 27% of native Hawaiians are food insecure.
Josh [00:02:38] I think it goes to the model of being self-sufficient. And ultimately, when you look across BIPOC communities, especially the I in there are a lot of indigenous communities. The fear is that they will have self-sufficiency again. Indigenous communities around the world created amazing infrastructure and created amazing societies and not to romanticize it at all by the powers that be. The scarier thing is that indigenous peoples and peoples of color have self-sufficiency again.
Josh [00:03:20] And so when we talk about getting off of the food cycle for us, and I think the one number you say, though, that really scares me is that only 27% of native Hawaiians are food insecure. I think that number would be much higher. Like we lived in absolute poverty. My first years of farming, meaning that I made less than $5,000 a year. So in the Western system, we were absolutely poor to be resilient, to be self-sufficient. I think when we talk about our communities and why we're kept in a place of just poor nutrition is because if people if we're not thinking well, because we're not eating well, then it's really simple to control people based on their knee-jerk reaction.
Shilpi [00:04:02] Just a couple of months ago, PRISM published a piece penned by Ray about the importance of revitalizing Hawaiian food systems. As Ray explains, dependence on mainland food imports is an exploitative process that has been made worse by the tourism industry.
Ray [00:04:18] So around the 1960s, after the end of World War Two, the U.S. started really pushing for Hawaii to be more of a tourist industry.
Josh [00:04:28] For our communities, I just see that it's $3 billion annually spent on bringing food into Hawaii. It's more about keeping up the status quo because it keeps people in different categories. And we see that through branding and marketing, is that organic food is too expensive. It's really not, you know, it's too expensive.. It's chemotherapy. We're not seeing people fight against chemotherapy because we're the number one herbicide and pesticide testing site in the world. We've been skewed and it's easier to keep that lie going than to really hit the reset button and go through the really hard pains of breaking up. You know, these huge food conglomerates that are responsible and are making bank off of bringing in all the food to all of our public schools, Coke and Pepsi and the like, Nestlé, you know, these massive corporations that are just poisoning our communities.
Clip [00:05:16] Coke is one of the top plastic-polluting brands in the world.
Clip [00:05:19] You know, we sometimes turn it back into new bottles. Sometimes it goes here. But don't worry, only 92% of plastics end up here.
Shilpi [00:05:27] You mentioned Nestlé, Coke, and Pepsi. These are three of the top single-use plastic polluters in the world. So it's not only this transition away from organic produce from your land, but the infiltration of single-use plastic packaging that's now coming into your communities.
Shilpi [00:05:46] So check this out. The history of chemical companies, like Dow, Syngenta, and DuPont run deep in Kawaii. A 2015 report by the Center for Food Safety detailed how these companies would use 17 times more restricted used insecticides per acre than on ordinary corn fields in the U.S. mainland. These pesticides, by the way, have been heavily banned in other countries. Pesticides have been linked to cancer, Alzheimer's disease, ADHD, and even birth defects. Let's get a little bit of history from Josh.
Josh [00:06:20] So what happens here and what's happening on a larger scale far as global climate change in some of these things? It happens here really, really fast. Five big families pretty much owned the majority of the land on Kauaʻi. There's been privatized. We talk about the herbicide and the pesticides stuff on Kauaʻi. And, you know, they've changed names, but they're still here working at Montana State University. And they'd be like, Josh, why are you so anti-GMO? I'm not anti-GMO as much as I'm anti you just testing on our community without talking to us. We have corn because Native Americans took the time over 11,000 years to take get us here and crossbreed it. That's a hybrid. So if we're going to get into semantics of it, I'm really against the gene splicing. And then ultimately I'm more against because I'm not a scientist, I'm more against you guys testing on our communities. All we're asking is that you tell us what's going on. That's it. You're poisoning all of our water, all of our air, all of our 'Aina. And then you're lying to our face, and then you're suing us so that you can continue to do it. That's what we're against. It's not that I'm against your research possibilities.
Shilpi [00:07:21] Wild, right? So Hawaii as a state has been battling and winning on some occasions the fight against the global agro-industry.
Clip [00:07:30] Monsanto has agreed to pay millions of dollars as part of a plea agreement. The U.S. attorney's office says the company used in store to ban pesticide on Oahu cornfields in lower Kunia and Haleiwa and also failed to follow regulations by allowing workers to enter those fields that had recently been sprayed with the pesticide.
Shilpi [00:07:48] On June 13th, 2018, the governor signed a bill which made the use of a major neurotoxic pesticide illegal. It called on more transparency and no spray zones around schools during school hours. But the fight in Kaua'i, ground zero for the five largest chemical companies in the world continues on.
Josh [00:08:10] The larger operations were able to split our committee right down the middle. And it was a racial thing. If you were against the GMO, if you were against open air, pesticide and herbicide testing in your community, then you were white and you were a kook and you were from the North Shore. You're bougie. You were all these things. You weren't for local people, you weren't for agriculture, that they made really fun shirts that I still see things like pro ag and that was their thing. And it was like, Yes, I need to feed our community because how much of your food makes it into the community? 0%. At that time, I would say less than 1% of the actual poundage that was being grown on West Kauaʻi made it into our community. And the pounds it did was their annual pumpkin giveaway because they're going crazy as giant GMO pumpkins and they'd give them away. And everybody be hyped. Oh, shit, I got a free pumpkin. Yes. You know, and it's like, bro. But they just eat it. Like all these kids have cancer and we're getting pumpkins? Community got sued. So our county, we passed a bill called 2491 notice legislative.
Josh [00:09:06] And it was groundbreaking and it was really weak. And then they sued us. The US, being the people of Kauaʻi, their workers. They sued the county on trademark. And the whole thing was, is like, Oh, we can't disclose what chemicals we're using because someone might take our trademark and they might use it. The whole thing was money. It was all a higher profit. And it happened on Big Island, happened on Maui as well, because they all followed suit.
Shilpi [00:09:38] So this is like Monsanto and Dow.
Josh [00:09:42] Dow, BASF, Syngenta, Monsanto and Molokai. And so you had to be at the five largest chemical companies in the world. All had homes in Hawaii for decades.
Clip [00:09:50] Syngenta pioneer DuPont, BASF and Dow have sprayed tons of toxic chemicals here as they test different pesticides to market with their genetically modified seeds. Kauai's climate means multiple formulations can be tested in the same fields all year.
Josh [00:10:07] They haven't left, you know, they change names. And that's what corporations are allowed to do, is they just sell. So we have Hartung Brothers, who is turnkey of Syngenta. It's the exact same thing, but it's a family organization from Nebraska. You're still doing the same stuff the Syngenta did. You're just not in Switzerland. You're from Nebraska.
Josh [00:10:26] I was helping condition the baseball team during this time at the high school because I'm the track coach over there and I was helping out. But, you know, all the coaches were the higher ups. They were the lunas for, you know, the supervisors for these companies. So I'd be in great relation with them. And these are their kids and they're entrusting me with their kids athletic futures. Then I'm seeing them on the weekend and we're fighting against each other. We're picketing against each other. And I'm in the courtroom and I'm testifying. And these are my neighbors.
Shilpi [00:10:51] It's what you said. You're on this pro Hawaiian platform and building that next generation so they're autonomous and that they can be self-sufficient. So let's get into that a little bit more.
Josh [00:11:03] I was raised working on farm loves bucking hay. I don't mind that it's 125 degrees and I got to wear a leather shop. So it's hard work but I feel a worth in that. This is an interesting thing because we're talking specifically about BIPOC community. One thing that I talk frequently about with my best friend, we talk every morning. He lives in Minnesota and he's a black man from Texas. And we talk about the validation of the black body, but not the black mind. I would say the same thing about the brown body, not the brown mind. And I wonder how much of my pride in doing physical labor comes from that outside validation of like, this is what my worth is and why am I so easy to want to do physical labor? And to answer the question directly. It's really our only way forward. We had food, real food as a kid because of our upbringing. So when I think about like if there was a way that we get to go forward and try and create an economy based off of the thing that we do the best in Hawaii, which is grow food. This is not to be ethnocentric, but native Hawaiians, by any metrics that white people came and gave us, were the best gardeners in the world. We have this amazing ability to lead the world in how do we think radically the farming. When we start to look at our what we look at as resources in the Western paradigm, we return them back into our relative. And not to make that fantastical, but actually what you do with your relatives is you care for them. And so if we cared for our food systems, we're much more likely to have reproductive food systems that take care of us in return. And in Hawaii, we're just really close to that story still.
Shilpi [00:12:38] There was another piece of Josh's story that really spoke to me. He's a father of two and is raising his kids to have deep respect for ancestral Hawaiian traditions. Here's his take on getting the younger generation involved.
Josh [00:12:51] Being a dad thing is a real soft spot for me. I love that everything else is just stuff to fill the time. So I think sometimes we get into these silos and we think we're the only ones doing it. That's a deficit mindset that we've been taught. You know, we're on our own. It's a lonely world. You've got to fight for everything. You've got to grind all the time. And that's definitely a colonial construct. It takes multiple interventions along this scale to take down this beast. We're the largest organic farm in Waimea, which is not a great pat on the back. We're the only organic farm in Waimea, which is a problem. The goal is access more kids, get them to be entrepreneurs. I don't want them to work for me. I want them to figure it out and we can help give them the tools. We need more brown Business owners. Business owners, they come from the plantation era whose families were brought over and had to work through shit conditions. We want you to see that you are validated in your space. You don't have to wait for some uber, global, national, whatever to come own you. Do your own thing like young woman, be your own boss. I actually said this to my wife the other day. I said, If I die young and don't get to be an old man with my kids, I really hope they remember that dad was dirty. The pride in having your hands in the ground and that you can be. And so for me to get a Ph.D. is to make that full circle for my kids. I want my kids to see that, like your dad farmed really hard, but that also validated the academic normalizing that you can go get educated and you can be a good person. You can do all of these things. And because we're not supposed to or it's not for us and it's really, really important.
Ray [00:14:25] This has been proved over and over again that communities that are being directly impacted by plastic pollution and dealing with it and navigating it and trying to develop resilient food systems against it, are not the communities responsible for creating the pollution in the first place?
Shilpi [00:14:41] The petrochemical industry, which makes plastic, also makes agricultural pesticides. And all of those chemicals.
Josh [00:14:48] That Dow Chemical.
Shilpi [00:14:49] DuPont, and they're all part of the same supply chain.
Josh [00:14:53] Only now are we starting to talk about the ethics of using plastic, because when you hire humans, there's ethical laws now like surprise plantations that you were horrible to people for so long that we created laws. This is how plastic is, is it just is a longer process to screen people of color over on the outskirts of society. We keep on doing things like creating these plastics and now it's coming full circle that it's gut biome of all the fish everywhere because plastics don't break down. So that whole ethical question of like, yeah, we can, but should we?
Shilpi [00:15:22] Is there any support that mainland settlers can offer?
Josh [00:15:26] You know, Marie, my wife, who is an amazing human being and far superior to me in everything to have a vertical leap in foot quickness. I see all the time that like, yo, as a white woman, I need you because you can stay on hold. You've been given a space where you're allowed to take things back and you're allowed to say, No, this isn't okay. So be in that space for us. We need that ally. See it in a big way. Communicate and don't come to Hawaii. You should boycott tourism to Hawaii until Native Hawaiians are allowed to dictate what tourism looks like in Hawaii. You know, that's why COVID was phenomenal for us, because it literally shut it down and allowed us to see what could happen.
Shilpi [00:16:04] And now people are going back in hordes again.
Josh [00:16:06] More numbers now than ever before than pre numbers.
Clip [00:16:11] Justification isn't new, but for native Hawaiians, being priced out can mean being forced to move off island entirely thousands of miles away from their ancestral lands.
Clip [00:16:20] This is our land.
Clip [00:16:21] Yet we can't even afford to be here.
Shilpi [00:16:24] So there's another piece of Josh's story that's important to uplift. The presence of the U.S. military is deeply embedded with colonial practices that have shaped modern Hawaii. It's been over a hundred years since the U.S. military participated in the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893. While militarism continues to distort the cultural and political environment.
Josh [00:16:51] The military complex of the United States military and tourism have us in a stranglehold financially. Even our policies, you look at a local level so we can't live and work on our own farms. So what I'm saying is they create laws that are to keep these multimillion and billionaires who come over here and they have a papaya stand and they get egg water and they get egg lease on their land. They get egg rates. It's actually hurting us and us to actually need to be able to live and work on our own land. The gentrification thing is is wild. So I would say part of what makes us indigenous peoples is our ability to stay within the inclusive realm or it's always profit over people. And so now we're in that trying to get resilient. Mau 20 years later you know it's around that out and to end on a positive is it's about reconnecting people to people and sharing our combined stories. I am one small piece of a lot that's going on and not that anybody is going to attribute my story to being the definitive truth. We know that the movement needs to keep on moving forward, and we're just trying to do a small piece. There's a lot that we don't know, and we're constantly trying to be lifelong learners, which I think is so important in this era, in this day and age.
Shilpi [00:17:59] Josh's quest for knowledge and learning is a good reminder for all of us. It's important to learn the real history of Hawaii and understand how deeply interconnected colonialism, military presence and tourism impacts agricultural food systems. It's also an important reminder that we are entitled to transparency and complete information when it comes to the chemicals going into the land, making our food. To learn more about Josh's work and his organization, check out our show notes.
Shilpi [00:18:30] Not My Mainland was produced by Francisco Nunez Capriles and generously supported by the Food and Farm Communications Fund. If you're loving the show and haven't done so yet, please hit subscribe and leave us a rating and review. We've got one more episode for the season.
Shilpi [00:18:46] See you soon.