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GMO foes, farmers clash at meeting in Keaau


A small group of anti-GMO activists and organic food proponents was ejected Tuesday afternoon from a talk-story session in Keaau aimed at helping farmers recovering from Tropical Storm Iselle.

Organizers of the event say the activists were trying to capitalize on the losses experienced by farmers, creating a disruption and harassing growers who choose to raise Rainbow papayas and other genetically modified crops. Meanwhile, the activists say they were in attendance to prevent big agriculture companies such as Monsanto from preying on farmers while spreading the use of their products.

Agriculture officials have said that Big Island farmers were hit hard by the high winds, rain and falling trees that accompanied Iselle, with papaya farmers taking the most damage. Estimates for the papaya industry alone have put the impact at about $56 million. So on Tuesday, W. H. Shipman and Hawaii Farmers and Ranchers United hosted a gathering for farmers to discuss their problems and offer experts to provide some solutions.

“With the storm, a lot of these guys are just really, really struggling,” explained Shipman President Bill Walter. “The papaya industry has just been devastated. So the leaders of (Farmers and Ranchers United) said, ‘Let’s get all our farmers and ranchers together, and state and county agencies here to talk about what may be available.’”

But when a handful of activists who oppose the use of chemicals and genetically modified crops, including members of GMO Free Hawaii Island, allegedly created a disturbance, the organizers said they chose to call the police and have some members of the group removed.

In a phone interview Thursday, GMO critic Courtney Larson said she and others attended the meeting to keep an eye on what kinds of foods are being sold by farmers.

“I’m a chef, and I have clientele that come to me for specifically non-GMO, organic, healthful foods. And that’s my position,” she said. “I currently happen to know everything about nutrition, and I advocate for food freedom. We want total transparency.

“We weren’t just going there to see what their spiel was. We wanted to know who they were representing, who the funding and aid is coming from. It’s a very, very delicate situation with these big ag companies and chemical companies. … I really feel like these big ag companies have been pushing their way into Hawaii agriculture and they are using this storm as an opportunity. They’ve already been trying to push chemicals and their seeds and their big-ag agenda on these poor, innocent farmers.”

Lorie Farrell, a coordinator of the Farmers and Ranchers, said that such concerns couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Our sole purpose was to gather the farmers together, especially the papaya guys. I mean, they had tears in their eyes, they were in shock (after the storm). There wasn’t any assistance for them,” she said. “We knew we wouldn’t have all the answers, but we could be there for each other, get good information to the farmers, and resources.

“It was not, by any means, what the people making this complaint have been saying. They called it a ‘Monsanto Talk Story’ or ‘Big Agro.’ … There was a representative from Monsanto, but he never spoke, and didn’t take any public position. … This was farmers helping farmers.”

When Larson began photographing meeting attendees and questioning farmers about their employers and their crops, she said she was asked to leave. Larson claims that in the process of being removed from the premises, she was assaulted by more than one Shipman employee, who allegedly pulled her hair, stepped on her feet, put her into a chokehold, and held her down.

Shipman representatives deny that description of events, saying that Larson had been the aggressor, shouting and causing a scene. Larson said that responding police did not believe her side of the story either and escorted her from the property.

Hawaii Police records indicate that the department has initiated two third-degree assault cases, which are misdemeanors, and one harassment case as a result of the incident at the Shipman offices.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.