GMO foods possibly to be sold in UK supermarkets

Photo: Farm Field with No-GMO

The major GMO companies are achieving success in their campaign to spread GMO foods all over the world. According to an article in the UK Telegraph today, "Tesco, Sainsbury's, Morrisons, Marks & Spencer, Co-Op, Somerfield and the budget chain Aldi have met with civil servants to discuss their problems in finding traditional food supplies." A report on the meetings noted: "Retailers were concerned that they may not be able to maintain their current non-GM sources of supply as producers increasingly adopt GM technology around the world."

The problem is that it is becoming increasingly difficult for the UK retailers to find non GMO foods at reasonable prices because USA and Brazilian farmers are using GMO crops especially corn and soya beans.

According to the article public opposition to GMOs in the UK, "appears to be waning; according to a document jointly produced by the Food Standards Agency and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs only 6 per cent of consumers are concerned when asked to respond spontaneously, compared to 20 per cent in December 2003."

Once GMOs become accepted in the UK it seems inevitable that the battle against them will be lost and they will be sold all over Europe.

URGENT! Tell the USDA you don't want GMO's by Feb. 16

Tell the USDA that you care about GMO contamination of organic food. The USDA believes that there is “no consumer evidence” that we care about genetically engineered food intermixing and contaminating organic food. They are about to deregulate GE alfalfa without any limitations or protections for farmers or the environment.

This, despite the recent report by Nielsen, Co. that 'GMO-free' is the fastest-growing health and wellness claim among store brands, with sales of these items up 67 percent in 2009 to $60.2 million. [2] As usual, the USDA ignores these statistics.

Some background information: The USDA released its draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on Monsanto's GE Roundup Ready Alfalfa on December 14, 2009, and a 60-day comment period is now open until February 16, 2010. [1] This is the first time the USDA has done this type of analysis for any GE crop. Therefore, the final decision will have broad implications for all GE crops.

Go to this website to take action http://ga3.org/campaign/alfalfaEIS/35e6ik64hjebbw7t?

It is clear that the USDA has not taken the concerns of non-GE alfalfa farmers, organic dairies, or consumers seriously. Instead the USDA has completely dismissed the fact that GE contamination will threaten export and domestic markets and organic dairy products.

USDA also claims that consumers will not reject GE contamination of organic alfalfa if the contamination is unintentional or if the transgenic material (genetically modified) is not transmitted to the end product, despite the fact that more than 75% of consumers believe that they are purchasing products without GE ingredients when they buy organic.

The Center for Food Safety has found that contamination has already occurred in the fields of several Western states.

The USDA predicts that the approval of GE alfalfa would damage family farms and organic markets, yet doesn’t even consider any limitations or protections against this scenario. Small, family farmers are the backbone and future of American agriculture and must be protected.

Organic agriculture provides many benefits to society: healthy foods for consumers, economic opportunities for family farmers and urban and rural communities, and a farming system that improves the quality of the environment. However, the continued vitality of this sector is imperiled by the complete absence of measures to protect organic production systems from GE contamination and subsequent environmental, consumer, and economic losses.

One positive thing to report is that thousands of organic and natural food products are enrolled in the Non-GMO Project's Product Verification Program (PVP), the nation’s first system designed to scientifically test whether a product has met a set of defined standards for the presence of GMOs.

Tell the USDA That You DO Care About Genetic Contamination of Organic Crops and Food!

Footnotes: 
  1. http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org
  2. https://www.nongmoproject.org/ Sustainable Food News February 5, 2010

GMO Foods Should Be Labeled, Part III

Non-GMO Project Verified

(This is the third installment of a three-part series about the potential risks of foods containing genetically modified ingredients)

As consumers, we value the basic right to choose from a wide variety of foods in the marketplace, to make informed choices as to what to eat and what we feed our families. Presently this right is being denied to consumers around the world who want to know whether a food contains genetically modified organisms (GMO).

A GMO is the result of a laboratory process where genes are taken from one species and inserted into another in an attempt to obtain a desired trait or characteristic. GMOs are also known as genetically engineered-, bio-engineered-, biotech crops, or transgenic organisms. Down to Earth is opposed to the development of products containing GMOs because, as I've outlined in previous blogs on this topics, we believe they may pose health, safety, and other potential risks that far outweigh the purported benefits.

This is a major problem because a 94-fold increase in GMO hectarage from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 160 million hectares in 2011 makes biotech crops the fastest-adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture. More than half the world’s population, 60% or 4 billion people, live in the 29 countries that are currently planting biotech crops. These numbers are expected to grow. In some countries, GMO crops count as the majority of all soy, corn, cotton, and canola grown. Other GMO crops include sugar beets, squash, alfalfa and papaya. Everything including bread, cereal, frozen pizza, soup, soda—all sorts of processed foods—now contain GMOs. One concern is that we do not know whether GMOs are safe for humans to eat because the studies have not been done.

In 1998, a loud outcry among consumers in the European Union resulted in mandatory labeling of foods containing GM ingredients. Over the past 15 years the list of countries that require some form of labeling has grown to include Russia, Japan, China, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Indonesia, Brazil, Venezuela, India, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Czech Republic, Australia and New Zealand.

But in the United States and Canada, powerful lobbying by biotech companies has so far prevented labeling laws from being enacted.

Polls show that 92% of American citizens want genetically modified foods to be labeled, and many are fighting to enact labeling laws. In the state of California, for example, this November consumers will be voting on a GMO labeling bill known as Proposition 37. It is emerging as one of the most high-stakes showdowns in the GMO labeling movement in the USA to date. If Proposition 37 passes, California would become the first state in the USA to require new labels on a host of food products commonly found on grocery store shelves—from breakfast cereals to sodas to tofu.

Few choices in our daily lives are as important as the food choices we make for ourselves and our families. We should be the ones in control, not government. It's wrong for governments to deny us our right to know. Our right to know what is in the food we are buying and our right to choose our preferred food should not be usurped for any reason.

Most people want GMO labeling and many are not convinced that GMOs are safe. Some oppose them based on scientific studies which show health and safety concerns; others oppose them on the basis of religious, spiritual, philosophical, or ethical beliefs. While we have different reasons for wanting to know what is in our food, the one thing no one should deny is our right to know.

For consumers to make informed decisions, the public deserves an open and truthful marketplace. We join consumers around the world in calling for GMO labeling so that, if we want, we can choose not to eat GMOs. The simple truth is that most people want the right to choose what they eat and what they feed their families.

Down to Earth calls for the labeling of foods that contain GMOs everywhere in the world.

GMO Foods: A Dangerous Experiment, Part I

Photo: Scientist Taking Samples from Seedlings

(This is the first installment of a three-part series about the potential risks of foods containing genetically modified ingredients)

One of the most dangerous and least understood experiments with human health the world has ever known is currently underway without your consent—in your household and households around the world. It is the wholesale contamination of the world's food supply with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

GMOs are the result of a laboratory process where genes are taken from one species and inserted into another in an attempt to obtain a desired trait or characteristic. GMOs are also known as genetically engineered-, bio-engineered-, biotech crops, or transgenic organisms.

While GMO proponents say their goal is to increase nutritional benefits or productivity, the two main traits that have been added to date are herbicide tolerance and the ability of the plant to produce its own pesticide. These results have no health benefits, and in fact have only contributed to higher herbicide use and pesticide-resistant superbugs.

Down to Earth is opposed to the development of products containing GMOs because we believe they may pose health, safety, and other potential risks that far outweigh the purported benefits.

GMO crops are grown on every continent of the world. Since their introduction in 1996, they have been planted in over 1.25 billion hectares worldwide—an area 25% larger than the total land mass of the US and China. This experiment is so pervasive that in 2011, for example, 88% of U.S. corn was genetically engineered as were 94% of soy, 95% of sugar beets, 90% of canola oil, 90% of cotton, and about 80% of Hawaiian papaya. Also, this spring marked the first planting of GMO alfalfa.

This story is similar for other countries. In 2011, 160 million hectares of GMO crops were grown in India, China, Japan, the Philippines, Brazil, Mexico, the United States, Canada, and scores of other countries throughout Europe and the rest of the world. As a result, everything including bread, cereal, frozen foods, canned soup, soda—all sorts of processed foods—now contain genetically engineered ingredients

There have been no controlled, long-term studies determining the effects of GMO’s on human beings. The only feeding study conducted on human beings showed GMOs survived inside the stomach of the people eating GMO food. No follow-up studies were done. Various feeding studies conducted on animals by independent scientists have raised serious concerns. Results from these studies included potentially pre-cancerous cell growth, damaged immune systems, smaller brains, livers, and testicles; partial atrophy or increased density of the liver, odd shaped cell nuclei and other unexplained anomalies, false pregnancies and higher death rates.

Every single genetically engineered organism is different, and may adapt differently over time. Foreign genes may give rise to allergenic proteins or toxic compounds which survive in the bloodstream. By experimenting with the genetic structure of common foods without thoroughly testing each new combination and its effects on human beings and the environment, the biotech industry is essentially conducting a vast, long term, uncontrolled experiment on human health and the entire planet.

I urge you to educate yourself about the presence of GMO foods in your community. Learn what you can do to stop this dangerous experiment on your health and the health of your children. In my next blog I will provide more details about the potential health and environmental risks posed by introducing GMOs into the environment and our food.

Celebrity Testimony Highlights the Problems of Industrial Agriculture

Comedian Stephen Colbert made news when he testified last Friday before a Congressional subcommittee in support of migrant farm workers rights. Some representatives took issue with his choice to appear in character as the blustering conservative commentator he plays on his Comedy Central show The Colbert Report, but it was also noted that his appearance gave the hearing much more exposure than it would have had otherwise.

On his show, Colbert assumes a persona patterned after commentators such as Bill O’Reilly in order to skewer the illogical and excessive rhetoric that often takes the place of balanced inquiry and analysis on news shows. Although much of his testimony was meant as satire, he did finish on a sincere note. When asked why he had taken up this cause he stated bluntly, “Because migrant workers suffer and have no rights.”

Check out a video of his opening statement

He mentions the United Farm Worker’s “Take our Jobs” campaign, which he participated in for a day, working alongside migrant workers in Iowa packing beans and corn. UFW initiated the “Take Our Jobs” campaign in response to accusations that undocumented migrant field workers are exacerbating the unemployment rate in America. They distributed applications and invited any legal, unemployed American citizen to replace them in the fields. Arturo Rodriguez, the president of UFW, reported to Congress that while he convinced 8,000 people to apply, only 7 actually completed the process and accepted the job. After describing the difficult working conditions he witnessed, Colbert declared, with a note of sarcasm, “this brief experience gave me some small understanding why so few Americans are clamoring to begin an exciting career as seasonal migrant field worker.”

Colbert went on to note that 84,000 acres of production and 22,000 farm jobs have moved to Mexico, leaving a million acres of US farmland barren due to lack of available labor. It’s clear that even with the unemployment rate approaching 10%, most people aren’t eager to start picking their own produce.

This trend is disturbing, but not unexpected to anyone who’s been paying attention to the degradation of agriculture in America. In 1900, over 50% of Americans were involved in agriculture. In 2000, that number was less than 1%, and the average age of a farmer was approaching 60. This decline is caused partly by the outsourcing of food production to other countries, and partly by the increased use of technology in the field, which allows one farmer to produce more food with less labor.

Producing more food with less labor might seem like a good thing. However, as a result of increased mechanization, modern industrial farm work isn’t just hard; it’s dangerous. A study by Texas A&M University found that the rate of fatalities in agriculture is 22.7 per 100,000, greater than construction and transportation, and second only to mining. The study also noted that these figures only take into account workers 16 and older, leaving out over 650,000 minors who work in agriculture. Also, since an estimated 50% of farm workers are undocumented immigrants, it’s likely that many deaths go unreported.

The rate of injury in agriculture is also commonly believed to be higher than most other sectors, however various factors make it difficult to collect accurate data. One study noted that “This problem of incomplete reporting is further complicated by the reluctance of many hired farm workers, especially those not authorized to work in the U.S., to report injuries to anyone in authority.” (https://donvillarejo.github.io/publications.html) The study noted that many undocumented workers calculate the risk of lost income against the potential health hazard of not reporting an injury and continuing to work untreated.

The high rate of injury and fatality is due primarily to untrained and overworked laborers working with heavy machinery they are ill equipped to operate. According to the National Ag Safety Database, the three leading causes of death on farms are machinery, motor vehicles and electrocution. In addition, farm workers are regularly subjected to heavy doses of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which have dangerous and potentially fatal side effects

It’s undoubtedly important to protect the rights of migrant farm workers. Their work feeds this country, and they deserve at least fair treatment and a living wage. However, it’s not enough to protect the rights of workers in an industry that is fundamentally flawed. We need to look deeper. The places where we grow our food shouldn’t be epicenters of disease and death. Farms shouldn’t be places we avoid for fear of getting poisoned, run over or electrocuted. Farms should be places we gather to nurture the best in our communities and ourselves.

We need to understand that just because we can grow food bigger, faster and cheaper than ever before, it doesn’t mean we should. By treating food like any other commodity, we ignore the relationship between food and health, food and family, food and community.

This transition back to community and home-based food production may take place whether we like it or not. Industrial agriculture depends on a steady supply of fossil fuel, which, at the rate we’re currently burning it, won’t last forever. Richard Heinberg, in an address to the E. F. Schumacher society, estimated that when fossil fuel reserves decline, it will take 50 million farmers to supply the food needs of this country. So if we want to eat, we need to make farming a more attractive career, and we need to teach farmers how to grow food without chemical fertilizers, pesticides and massive combines.

Industrial food isn’t good for the people who grow it or the people who eat it, and in the long run we won’t be able to sustain it. Buying organic food is one way to encourage an alternative, sustainable industry. When we buy organic we’re not just supporting our health and the health of our family. We’re supporting the health of the soil, the health of the ecosystem and the health of the farmers.

The Time is Now: Tell the Secretary of Agriculture, "We Need a Total Ban on GM Alfalfa."

GMOs are, without a doubt, the most important issue of our generation. The decisions made now will have a decisive and irreversible impact on food security and health for uncountable numbers of generations in the future. Following a drawn out legal challenge to biotech industries by concerned farmers, the USDA recently announced that they are considering total or partial deregulation of GM alfalfa. Please educate yourself about this vital issue. I urge you to contact Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, and tell him that a total ban on GM alfalfa is necessary to ensure that organic farmers are able to maintain the purity of their crops.

Phone: 202-720-3631
Email: agsec@osec.usda.gov

Back in 2006, a group of farmers, environmental activists and the Center for Food Safety sued the USDA over their approval of Monsanto's Roundup Ready Alfalfa, which the group claimed was approved without the required safety studies. The suit was successful, the court ordered an immediate ban on any further planting of Roundup Ready Alfalfa, and the verdict was upheld on appeal. This past April, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and in June they ruled that the ban was too strict. Their decision allowed Monsanto to continue planting on a limited basis pending an in depth safety study by the USDA. While Monsanto claimed victory on the basis that the ban had been overturned, the Center for Food Safety pointed out that the ruling actually had more positive implications for the non GMO movement since the Supreme Court had acknowledged that GM contamination constitutes an ecological and economic threat.

Now, after completing the required safety review, the USDA has announced that it favors either total deregulation or planting with some regulation, far short of the total ban that many farmers and environmentalists had hoped for. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has stated his desire to reach a compromise between biotech industries and farmers whose livelihoods are threatened by GM contamination. However, in their proposed standards for the release of GMOs, the National Organic Coalition (NOC) makes it clear that farmers have to abide by the rules of nature, and when it comes to gene flow, nature doesn't compromise.

Gene flow is the process by which genetic material from one population is introduced and commingles with the genetic material of another population. This can happen in a number of ways. Most commonly, pollen or seeds are carried by insects, birds or wind over a certain distance and end up pollinating a member of the same species in a different location. Because these factors are so difficult to control, these plants are called “promiscuous” crops. Many of the most common GMO crops such as soybeans, canola and corn are promiscuous, and this has led to a high level of cross contamination in the industry. In one instance, supposedly organic soybeans that were shipped to Europe and tested on arrival turned out to have 20% GMO contamination. This phenomenon has led many organic industry advocates to protest that introduction of these GMO crops on any level essentially threatens the very existence of certified organic food.

In their paper "GMO Contamination Prevention and Market Fairness: What Will it Take?", the NOC makes a strong case for total bans on certain GMOs and heavy regulation of others from a strictly economic standpoint. Leaving aside the contentious issue of whether or not GMOs pose a threat to health, they argue that there are discernible and lucrative markets for GMO-free products, and these markets demand zero or near-zero levels of material derived from GM sources. Therefore, promiscuous crops such as GM sugar beets, corn, canola and alfalfa should be banned. Crops which don't pose such a distinct threat of cross pollination still need heavy regulation to keep seed stocks separate, create barriers or buffers between GM and non-GM crops and correct any accidental contamination, including reimbursements to farmers for lost revenue. The NOC argues that these responsibilities lie with the corporations who profit from GM technology, and the USDA has the authority to enforce these responsibilities.

The amount of regulation necessary to even mitigate GM contamination makes it clear that nature plays by her own rules. How can you stop a honeybee from flying farther than you want it to? How can you stop the wind from blowing pollen where you don't want it to go? Gene flow is a constant in nature. The only consistent physical barriers to gene flow are impassable mountain ranges, oceans, vast deserts, and, according to a recent study, the Great Wall of China. So to allow partial deregulation of a honeybee-pollinated crop is virtually the same thing as allowing the crop to be planted without any oversight whatsoever. It's just a matter of time before GM genes find their way into organic alfalfa. Tell Tom Vilsack: "To protect American farmers, we need a total ban, and we need it now."

Wikileaks Reveal US Government Pushing Pro-GMO Agenda Worldwide

Cables released through the controversial website Wikileaks reveal that the US government is trying to enact an aggressive pro-biotech agenda even in the face of entrenched international opposition. The cables in question were written by Craig Stapleton, the US ambassador to France, in 2007. In them, Stapleton advises that the US "reinforce our negotiating position with the EU on agricultural biotechnology by publishing a retaliation list." The list, he continued, should be one that "causes some pain across the EU since this is a collective responsibility."

Citizens of the European Union have been the most vocal in their rejection of genetically modified foods. Four months after GM crops were first approved in Europe, consumer rejection caused most major food companies to commit to going GMO-free. Jeffrey Smith, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology, calls this the consumer tipping point, and he's targeting his efforts at reaching a similar tipping point in the US. While GM foods are not banned in Europe, they are required to be labeled. As a result, food manufacturers avoid GM ingredients because consumer preference is so clear.

Most online commentators have expressed shock, dismay or cynical acceptance that the US government would be so deeply in the pocket of the biotech industries. While it is certainly alarming to know that certain people in the federal government are willing to go so far to push a pro-GMO agenda, at the same time I find it encouraging that this was written in 2007 and still, three years later, the EU shows no signs of reversing their anti-GMO position.

In 2009, Germany joined France, Hungary, Italy, Greece, Austria, Poland and Romania in banning Monsanto's Mon 810 GM corn because of its documented hazards to biodiversity and human health. Just this month, the European division of Greenpeace gathered a million signatures on a petition to halt approvals of new GM crops. It's now being considered by the European Commission under a recently enacted statute that allows a million or more citizens to jointly request a change in EU law.

Now that these cables have come out, it will be harder for Monsanto or their allies in government to enact punitive measures against GMO-free advocates without drawing bad publicity and increasing opposition. There are important lessons to learn from the situation in Europe: first of all, though the biotech industry may appear to wield tremendous power and influence, Jeffrey Smith has pointed out that consumer rejection is the one vulnerability they can't control. Monsanto can lobby, pay off and threaten governments around the world to get GM crops approved, but if consumers aren't buying, it won't do them any good.

Secondly, this revelation of a governmental abuse of power only underscores the greater power of concerned citizens. We have the power to stop pro-biotech policy, when we choose to exercise it. We did once, in 1998 when the biotech industry tried to get the USDA to allow GM ingredients to pass organic certification. The proposal was rejected after the USDA received over 275,000 letters of protest, an unprecedented response in USDA history. As a result, organic certification retains a zero-tolerance policy on GM ingredients and buying organic remains one of the best ways to avoid GMOs.

So keep educating yourself, stay engaged and keep spreading the word: GMOs are dangerous at worst, untested at best. To uphold consumer freedom, the US should adopt mandatory labeling laws as soon as possible. For more in depth analysis of the Wikileaks cables and US international policy on GMOs, see Jeffrey Smith's article on The Huffington Post.

A Suggestion for Evaluating GMO Technology: "Dangerous Until Proven Safe."

The Supreme Court began hearing arguments yesterday appealing a 2006 ruling in favor of Northern California organic alfalfa growers. In Monsanto Co vs Geertson Seed Farms, Phillip Geertson and other producers of organic alfalfa argued that nearby production of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa threatened to cross-contaminate their crops. This will be the first case involving GMO crops accepted by the Supreme Court.

In making their case against Monsanto, Geertson cited statutes from the National Environmental Policy Act that was adopted by Congress to “attain the widest range of beneficial uses of the environment without degradation, risk to health and safety, or other undesirable and unintended consequences.” Unfortunately, since it’s passage in 1969, the Supreme Court has defeated all thirteen challenges brought against corporations that relied on NEPA.

Part of Monsanto’s case relies on the argument that the “irreparable harm” allegedly caused by its Roundup Ready crops is solely economic and not environmental, thus it is not covered by NEPA.

Their argument struck me as fundamentally unsound, based in the false distinction between environmental and ecological harm. While Monsanto sees the world as a collection of exploitable resources, organic farmers understand that a healthy economy relies on a healthy environment.

“Sustainability” is not just a hippy buzzword, or passing fad. It is, by definition, a necessity for the continuation of life on earth. This common sense reality is cleverly illustrated in a two-minute video, produced by the Natural Step: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFCNCQleCuk.

Industry advocates, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute, Croplife America and the National Association of Home Builders, filed a brief requesting that “the Court should make clear once and for all that a court must find likely irreparable harm before issuing an injunction."

Congress clearly stated that activities that presented a “risk to health and safety” could be challenged. GMO technology is largely untested, and where it has been tested the results are not encouraging. In 1969, Congress could not have predicted the technologies we would be evaluating forty years later. But in their wisdom, they left the wording broad and sympathetic to the well being of the general population. GM technology clearly presents a risk to the health and safety, not only of those who knowingly consume GM foods, but even those who consume produce grown in the vicinity of GM foods. While industry advocates are hoping the Supreme Court will find genetically modified organisms “innocent until proven guilty,” I believe the intention of Congress was to consider untested technology of this magnitude “dangerous until proven safe.”

Urgent! Petition to Stop the Censorship of GMO labeling

From the Seeds of Deception website:

"Please send this URGENT message to US Government leaders to protect your right to know which foods are made from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Send an email today to the Secretaries of State (Clinton), Agriculture (Vilsack), and Health and Human Services (Sebelius).

They must stop US negotiators at an international (Codex) conference from May 3-7, from pushing an agenda that could make it difficult for anyone, anywhere in the world to label foods as genetically modified (GM) food—or even make non-GMO claims on their product’s label.

The US is taking the ridiculous and unscientific position that GMOs are not different from conventional foods, claiming labels that say GMO or non-GMO are misleading.

If they succeed at the meeting, the US may then file lawsuits through the World Trade Organization against any country that implements mandatory labeling of GMOs, or even allows non-GMO claims on packages."

Ma'o: Turning Adversity into Advantage in Wai'anae

Photo: Staff at Ma’o Organic Farms

The heavy, clay-filled soil is so rich I almost want to taste it. It’s called Lualualei vertisol, named after the Lualualei valley on the leeward side of Oahu where Gerry and Kukui Maunakea-Forth first founded Ma’o Organic Farms.

The soil is packed with nutrients deposited from a river that once flowed through the valley. The density of the soil allows it to retain what little rain falls here. Then, as the sharp-toothed sun of Wai’anae bakes the earth, the soil cracks and the circulating air allows the nutrients to recycle and renew.

I’m spreading this dark black soil in the newly created chef’s garden during a volunteer day that takes place on the last Saturday of every month. We’re helping to build garden beds that will be planted with herbs and fresh greens for visiting chefs, who Uncle Gerry hopes will highlight the importance (and deliciousness) of locally grown produce.  

Ma’o Organic Farms is known for fresh greens and salad mixes, which are sought out by top chefs across the island. If you spend a day at Ma’o, however, you quickly learn that fresh vegetables are only a side benefit of what they are really working to produce: youth with the leadership abilities, skills and self-confidence necessary to make much-needed change in their community.

Ma’o runs a two-year internship program that allows local students fresh out of high school to complete an associate’s degree at Leeward College while working on the farm three days a week. Ma’o provides the tuition and a monthly stipend, and the interns provide the bulk of the labor, and enthusiasm, needed to keeping the farm running. 

It has been wryly remarked that if you know anything about Wai’anae, you probably read it in the police report section of the paper. However, if Ma’o was all you knew of Wai’anae, your impression would be irrepressibly positive. The students are engaged, excited, and possessed of a practical intelligence born from busy, soil-covered hands. They learn every aspect of the operation, from constructing beds, to planting, harvesting, packing, selling and managing. There are only a handful of adults on staff. “If all of us called in sick one day,” one boasts, “the interns could run this place by themselves.”

Kamu acts as our guide on a tour around the farm. His younger brother was one of the first interns at Ma’o, and he now works for the farm as an education resource specialist, which seems to be a fancy phrase for “farmer-educator-marketer-strategist-mentor.” His goal for the students in his care: “Hands turned to the soil. That’s what keeps them out of trouble.”

He surveys Ma’o’s sixteen abundant and profitable acres and grins. “When we wanted to start Ma’o, everyone laughed. They said it couldn’t be done – the earth wasn’t viable for farming, no one would want to work it, you couldn’t make money. But none of those people lived in this community. All they could see were problems. When you live in a community, you might see the problems, but you know the assets, too. If you have vision and creativity, you can make change.”

Ma’o’s success can be attributed in large part to the local resources and traditions that run deep in Wai’anae. Farming is sacred work in Hawaiian culture, and the people of Lualualei valley have worked the land as long as anyone can remember. All the component parts are there – the rich, volcanic soil, the knowledge of the land, the respect for sustainable techniques, the work ethic – all it takes is a little imagination to assemble them all together.

The staff and students at Ma’o demonstrate the same unique qualities as the earth they work. In this harsh environment, other soils would dry up and blow away, and other people give up and fade away. But not these soils, and not these people. As the soil cracks, it tills itself. In the same way, as social and economic pressures build in Wai’anae, youth reevaluate their future. Dead ends stare them in the face at every turn, except one. Turning hands to soil, nourished by the renewal of the earth, they create advantage from adversity.

The reality is that people all around the world share this same heritage, and this same opportunity. If we can put the pieces of the puzzle back together, we can create a sustainable future for ourselves. Now, the same forces of urbanization, militarization and environmental exploitation that have had such negative consequences in Wai’anae are hard at work turning the rest of the world into a Super Fund cleanup site.

Learning from one’s own experience is intelligence. Learning from the experience of others is wisdom. We shouldn’t have to wait until BP's oil reaches our own backyard to break our dependence on fossil fuel. We shouldn’t have to wait until the food we buy poisons our children to start growing our own. Take a page from Ma’o. Malama ‘aina, malama ola kino – take care of the land, take care of your health. Earth to everybody - wise up!

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