POLITICS

For Hawaii Politicians, GMOs & Biotech Are Political Kryptonite

11/25/2013 12:35 pm ET
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KAUAI, LIHUE -- Bernard Carvalho, a 6-foot-6 former Miami Dolphins football player, likes to give hugs.

It's a challenge for most recipients to fit their arms around the gregarious mayor's bear-like frame, but he's enjoyed welcoming political embraces. Carvalho's warmth and easy charisma facilitated his re-election in 2010 when he won over 77 percent of voters on the island.

But since he vetoed GMO and pesticide disclosure Bill 2491 in October, some reactions haven't been very affectionate.

He’s been jeered in public and anti-GMO activist groups have vowed to destroy his political career. Carvalho has received phone calls and emails from people threatening to damage his property and hurt him. He's been described as a "scumbag," a "chemical company thug," and a "birth-defects mayor."

Anger toward Carvalho took a sharp turn on October 31 when he vetoed the Kauai County Council's bill that requires biotech companies on the island to disclose details about their pesticide use and abide by setbacks between test fields sprayed with chemicals and schools, hospitals, parks and waterways. The bill also requires farmers to disclose their GMO use or risk fines and jail time.

The council overrode the mayor's veto on Nov. 16 so the measure is slated to go into effect in August of 2014.

A mayor with a hearty laugh who often uses football metaphors to describes politics might seem out of place in the debate over biotech.

When he sat down recently with Civil Beat on one of his over-sized office chairs, he highlighted what he sees as progress in getting biotech companies to engage with local residents and the political process. Or, as Carvalho puts it, he finally got them “off the bench.”

“I told the companies, in a football game … either you’re sitting on the bench drinking water or you are in the game helping this thing move along to get to a win-win,” he said.

The solution, Carvalho believes, is for everyone to work together on the issue, including the governor, state departments tasked with oversight of pesticides and GMOs and the biotech companies.

Local Boy

Carvalho, 52, was born and raised on Kauai. He attended Kapaa High School where he was a football and basketball star, before enrolling at the University of Hawaii at Manoa on a football scholarship. He was drafted by the Dolphins in 1984 and played two seasons before getting married and returning to Kauai, where he is a father of three children.

He worked his way up through the ranks of local government and, after the death of then-Mayor Bryan Baptiste, won a special election for mayor in 2008. Two years later, he won an overwhelming victory.

The mayor, who plans to run for re-election in 2014, speaks with a heavy local accent that is laced with the cadence of Hawaiian Pidgin. His roots run deep on Kauai, where his father and grandparents used to work the sugarcane and pineapple fields.

His family history helps to explain his loyalty to, and sympathy for, the agriculture workers who work in the fields for biotech companies where genetically engineered crops, primarily seed corn, are tested before being exported to the mainland.

He suggested that their fate is a driving motivation for him when he deals with the biotech industry.

“There’s families that work the field like my grandma and grandpa used to work before. So I’m concerned about that. To say that [residents] are just going to get rid of all these companies, no way. We are going to work together,” Carvalho said.

“Nobody can tell me, ‘No worry, they going to get a job,’” he continued. “No, no, no. I know (people) with tears falling down their eyes, they are very concerned. Because that is all they have, these families.”

Carvalho said he is torn between the concerns of workers and of residents scared of the restricted chemicals that biotech companies spray on fields — substances that may enter the surrounding environment via the soil, water and air.

His response has been all about trying to get key players to work together on the issue — the governor, state departments tasked with pesticide and GMO oversight and the biotech companies.

The attempt at balance strikes some council members and bill supporters as naive. A common refrain of their criticism is: “You don’t negotiate with multi-billion dollar corporations.”

Councilman Gary Hooser, who co-introduced Bill 2491 with Tim Bynum, said repeated attempts to work with these companies in the past went nowhere. “I think (the mayor) is genuine, but not as informed on the issue and (he) gives a greater weight to the industry perspective,” Hooser said. “I think that he is overly optimistic in his expectations that these large corporations will act like good neighbors.”

Hooser’s comments about Carvalho are gentle compared to others on social media.

“Enjoy your last days in office chemical Carvalho, we will make an example of you,” the Hawaii GMO Justice Coalition wrote on its Facebook page shortly after the mayor’s veto. ”You have stained our lives and our health, we will stain your political future.”

That post received 141 “likes,” 66 comments and was shared 30 times.

“Go to hell Carvalho!” wrote one commenter.

“Vote him out. Scum bag,” wrote another.

The Hawaii GMO Justice Coalition later deemed Carvalho a “chemical company thug,” which also went over well with the group’s Facebook fans.

The unconventional advocacy group Babes Against Biotech, which has emerged in recent years as a highly visible presence in Hawaii’s anti-GMO movement, nicknamed him “the birth-defects mayor.” The group’s organizers — young women known for their bikini-clad pictures and pin-up calendar — plans to canvass on Kauai to secure Carvalho's electoral defeat in 2014. (The group claims to have 9,000 members.)

But it is far from clear that those who called Carvalho names and who have promised to end his political career will be detrimental to his 2014 re-election effort.

For one, the Kauai County Council’s override of Carvalho's veto may soften anger toward the mayor because he lost on the issue.

GMO Politics

Given an absence of substantive public polling, it remains unclear how many people on the island actually respect or support Carvalho's decision, or support Bill 2491.

So, despite a rally by at least 1,500 people to encourage passage of the bill in September, no one knows for sure where a majority of Kauai's 65,000 residents stand.

“One of the things that is really interesting about this entire process has been that you have a very active group of people who have dominated the conversation,” said Jan TenBruggencate, a former Honolulu Advertiser reporter who runs a communications consulting firm and is a member of the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative.

“There are people who are supporting the bill, when you talk to them privately, they still feel genetic modification of crops has the potential to feed the world and should go forward,” said TenBruggencate. “So it is sufficiently nuanced in the minds of the people that it is really hard to know what will happen at the ballot box.”

TenBruggencate even suggested that there may be a silent majority against the bill. "So I have heard people surmise that some of the supporters of the measure on the council could actually lose votes. And that the support for the bill is relatively thin.”

The debate on Kauai has often been boiled down to a David-versus-Goliath fight, with local residents concerned about health and the environment going up against the world’s biotech giants — Syngenta, DuPont-Pioneer, Dow and BASF.

But the political contours of the debate are more nuanced. The fight over Bill 2491 has attracted anti-GMO activists who want the biotech industry driven off of Kauai. Their arguments mirror those of a broader national movement that decries genetically engineered food as unnatural and dangerous, and feeds off public distrust and resentment toward multinational corporations.

In the face of such arguments, Carvalho stands by his strategy of outreach to all, which he says is in the best interests of the island. “Kauai is a special place and we have a special way of doing business,” the mayor said. “We work together. And if that means going to some place in Indiana or Iowa (where the biotech companies’ headquarters are) and going through every floor and spreading aloha in that place, I’ll do that if I have to.”

How Carvalho’s efforts will resonate with voters next November may well be influenced by how events unfold in the courtroom and the Legislature.

The biotech industry has said it will sue the county over the new law. Additional legislation may also be proposed at the state level to limit the county’s ability to impose regulations on biotech companies.

Joan Conrow, a longtime Kauai resident and reporter, said reactions to any forthcoming legal and legislative steps could measure residents' temperature on the issue. And if the courts or Legislature change alter the equation on the issue, it could affect how people vote.

Regardless, all of Kauai will be able to decide how it feels about Carvalho on Nov. 4, 2014.

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