Keely Brosnan on her documentary “Poisoning Paradise”

The new documentary film “Poisoning Paradise” tells the story of local activists in Hawaii who are battling political corruption, corporate bullying, and systematic concealment by the agrochemical industry about their widespread testing of genetically engineered seeds and crops.

Communities became surrounded by experimental test sites after policymakers in Hawaii and D.C. tried to diversify the Hawaiian economy, which was overly reliant on tourism. They encouraged the world’s largest chemical companies to utilize Kauai’s favorable climate and fertile soil to test their biotech seeds, which are designed to be reliant on toxic chemicals, such as RoundUp Ready herbicides. For years, Syngenta, Pioneer DuPont, BASF, and Dow AgroSciences have been allowed to apply hundreds of tons of Restricted Use (RU) pesticides on thousands of acres across the Garden Island’s West Side, the traditional homeland of an Indigenous and disenfranchised population.

Bioneers sat down with Director Keely Brosnan to discuss how “Poisoning Paradise” explores the community’s ongoing struggle to advance bold new legislation governing the fate of their island home.

BIONEERS: What inspired you to make this documentary?

KEELY BROSNAN: In essence, this film is really a love letter to Hawai‘i. I grew up in Hawai‘i as a small child, and live in Hawai‘i part-time. It’s a place I love and with people I love.

I started to hear rumblings in 2013 about GMOs and experimental outdoor field trials of genetically engineered crops and pesticides, but I didn’t really understand what was happening. So, I met with some residents and local activists and attended meetings. And my neighbor and producing partner Teresa Tico wanted to make a film about Bill 2491, and my husband and I agreed to fund the project. Then it grew exponentially into Poisoning Paradise, which has a much broader reach and message than the original concept.

BIONEERS: What were some of the shocking things you learned in your research that you decided to include in your film?

KEELY: I was surprised to learn that Hawai‘i hosts more outdoor GE crop field trials than any other state in the nation, that most of those trials are for “pesticide-tolerant” corn and soy, and that most of the permits for those experiments are held by chemical companies.

In the 1980s, as the colonial-based sugarcane industry collapsed and the pineapple industry collapsed, policymakers in Washington and Hawai‘i invited the biotech industry to take over the fallow fields. I don’t think that they understood what the consequences would be, or the amount of chemicals that these agro-chemical industries would be utilizing.

The business model of large agricultural companies is to maintain a system that’s reliant on toxic pesticides. They have an arsenal of tools in their toolbox, including restricted use pesticides: Atrazine, Chlorpyrifos, and “general use pesticides” that people are more familiar with, like Roundup. The chemical companies use pesticides on their GE crops at a much higher frequency than conventional farmers. Handwritten spray logs show that GE fields are sprayed with a higher frequency and many more times per day than conventional farms. This results in a chemical cocktail of untested combinations of pesticides that are sprayed multiple times a day, multiple days per week, all year long near our schools, homes, hospitals, and environmentally sensitive shorelines. So, it’s really caused a lot of uproar in our community.

BIONEERS: We hear these companies referred to as “biotechnology” companies, but as your guests point out in the film, these are chemical companies who have no interest in reducing the amount of pesticides that farmers spray on crops. On the contrary, their primary technology is “pesticide-tolerance,” which allows farmers to blanket crops with chemicals that kill weeds without killing the plant itself. It seems like these companies are contributing to a massive increase in pesticide use?

KEELY: They’re chemical companies that are developing seeds for GE crops that are designed to rely on the chemicals they sell. So as Vandana Shiva says in our film, why would a chemical company be a means to reducing the sale of Roundup, the single largest contributor of profits to Monsanto? They designed these crops to sell more chemicals. This is why what’s happening on Kauai is important for everyone, because this is where research and development and field trials for genetically engineered crops happens. Once they develop their seeds, they ship them around the country and around the world.

BIONEERS: These trials are allowed to go on without any environmental impact studies?

KEELY: To date, yes. The federal government hardly regulates genetically engineered crops in any meaningful way, and until recently, the state has had a hands-off approach to these chemical companies. But I think the day of plausible deniability is over. I don’t think lawmakers can say that they didn’t know that these chemicals were dangerous.

Just in the past six months, we’ve had three different courts who ruled in favor of individuals who sued Monsanto/Bayer, the conglomerate, after developing Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, totaling nearly $2.5 billion in damages. In August 2018, a San Francisco jury awarded Dewayne Johnson $250 million in punitive damages and another $39 million in compensatory damages for his lost income and pain and suffering. A federal jury in March 2019 ordered Monsanto to pay more than $80 million in damages to another California man, Edwin Hardeman, after it was determined that his cancer was partly caused by his use of the weed killer Roundup.

Director Keely Brosnan

BIONEERS:  Can residents find out about statistics regarding birth defects or environmental damages caused by the spraying of chemicals in Hawai‘i?

KEELY: I’m not sure that they’ve been keeping accurate records at the National Birth Defect Registry in the State of Hawai‘i. Often when you have a serious ailment, you have to leave the island and seek treatment elsewhere in order to get the kind of specialized care that Children’s Hospital in LA, or St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, or other hospitals that are geared towards treating children provide.

The truth is I’m not aware of anybody testing the air, water or soil quality. Nobody really knows, for example, what happens at the end of the day after they’ve applied these chemicals on fields. They mix the chemicals in their trucks for application, and then they clean out that drum from their truck. They’re not hauling away the poison that was inside. So where does it go when they rinse it out into the field? We live on an island with finite natural resources, and one of our most important natural resources is our drinkable water. We have to be very careful about contaminating aquifers.

We need to start gathering data and testing the oil samples near people’s homes. We need people to start canvassing neighborhoods and going door-to-door to talk to people about whether they’re sick, or whether their family members or neighbors are sick. Putting federal, state or even private funding into that kind of a program would be a good idea. Our federal regulatory agencies aren’t doing enough to protect people and the environment from these toxic pesticides. [Report on

BIONEERS: You address neonicotinoid pesticides in the documentary. Can you talk about the dangers of that particular technology?

KEELY: Unfortunately, Neonicotinoids and similar systemic insecticides are currently among the most utilized pesticides in the world. They are linked to the alarming collapse of bee colonies and, without a doubt, the decline of our pollinator population.

I believe the EPA is going to ban the use of Neonicotinoids in the U.S., and ask that they be removed from the shelves for consumer use. I’m following that story and will be updating information on our website for people who are interested.

There are fantastic organizations like the Center for Food Safety, who is defending our food system from pesticides and pharmaceuticals, and toxic food additives and genetic mutations. Most recently, they spent years in court representing conservationists and beekeepers who sued the EPA for failure to protect pollinators from toxic neonicotinoids. There was a settlement reached last month where the EPA agreed to withdraw certification for 12 Neonicotinoid-based products, pulling them from the market because of the devastating effects that they have on our pollinators.

BIONEERS: You show in the film that people of color and Indigenous Hawaiians are bearing the brunt of the harms caused by the experimental tests. The local community there in those affected areas are deeply involved in organizing around raising awareness and advocating for legislation. Can you tell us about the bills that have been introduced and the status?

KEELY: Bill 2491 failed, which was really sad. It asked for modest buffer zones around schools homes, hospitals and other environmentally sensitive areas. It also would have required disclosure of what was being sprayed, when and where it was being sprayed, and an environmental impact study. As you saw in the film, that bill failed after going through the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The grassroots movement just for Bill 2491 probably surprised local legislators and government officials, but it didn’t surprise me because people who live in Hawai‘i really have a sense of stewardship of the land. They really want to be thoughtful and careful and I don’t think that government reflects the people’s wishes and desires as it should.

Then, last summer, the Governor of Hawai‘i signed into law Bill SB-3095, which does require 100ft buffer zones around schools. That was fantastic news, but it’s by no means a solution. I was sitting on an airplane at the time with my husband when I heard the Bill had passed, and although I felt some elation that we had some forward momentum and that it would set a precedent, I told my husband, “This plane that we’re sitting on right now is longer than a hundred feet,” so to require only a hundred foot buffer zone around a school is clearly inadequate.

Through SB3095, we were able to ask for disclosure of the chemicals that the agrochemical industry is using on the island. That report should be made available sometime in January 2020, and will be the first time that we have real disclosure. Then, the State of Hawai‘i initiated a total ban on Chlorpyrifos, which is extremely important, because they know that it causes damage to fetuses in utero, and also to babies and children as they develop and grow. The problem is the ban is little consolation if you live next door to these fields, because they’re allowing three more years for companies to phase it out, so they can still use it in Hawai‘i until 2022, I believe.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has given the EPA until July of this year to decide on the use of Chlorpyrifos. Hawai‘i was the first state to ban it, and then California followed suit. Other states like New York, Oregon, Connecticut and New Jersey have bills under consideration to remove Chlorpyrifos from the market. So, we’ll have to wait for the EPA findings.

BIONEERS:  Your film includes a nice balance of voices. There are people such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr.; Sylvia Earle, the marine biologist; Vandana Shiva, the activist and author; Andrew Kimbrell, attorney and director of the Center for Food Safety and other lawyers they’ve worked with on the ground.  Can you talk about some of the local experts and activists who appear in the film?

KEELY:  Yes, I wasn’t an expert on the subject. I am a filmmaker, and I stepped up to document what was happening as a journalist. But we also had local experts and scientists and we decided that it would be useful for us to gain some expertise from them. Fern Anuenue (formerly Rosenstiel) obtained her Bachelor’s in Science with triple majors in wildlife management and environmental science and marine biology. Andrea Brower has a PhD in Sociology and, specifically, from working in environmental sociology. So, they brought a lot to the table. They are residents and they are on the ground assisting a very grassroots movement.

BIONEERS: How concerned should tourists who are traveling to Hawai‘i be about risks to their own health? Who would they contact if they’re planning to travel to the Islands?

KEELY: I certainly think it’s worth a call to the tourism office to tell them they’re concerned. Whether they give you any information or not is another question. The 1.3 million people that went to Kaua‘i last year probably weren’t aware that Hawai‘i hosts more outdoor GE crop field trials than any other state in the nation.

As you’ll see in our section on tourism, you can’t even bring an apple to Hawai‘i. The State Department of Agriculture will take that away from you. So, while on one hand, they’re doing a very good job of protecting our natural resources, I personally think that the visitor industry should be pushing our state officials to protect public health. They have a responsibility to inform visitors who are going to be in the Hawaiian Islands that they may be exposed to these RU pesticides and chemicals.

Let’s say you want to go camping at Polihale State Park. The winds can blow from those fields right across your campsite to the ocean. Drift is relevant and it’s real. If you were trying to be careful, if you were trying to protect your children’s health, you might want to avoid a certain part of the island where these field trials are taking place.

I think anyone who is visiting Hawaii should could call the Board of Tourism, the Department of Health, the Department of Agriculture, the Governor’s office and ask these really important questions. I believe that the County government is a political subdivision of the State, and it has a responsibility to protect the environment for everyone’s benefit.

Hawai‘i’s State Constitution states that for the benefit of present and future Generations, the State and its political subdivisions shall conserve and protect Hawai‘i’s natural beauty and all its natural resources — and that includes land, water, air, minerals and energy sources. It would be good for elected officials to know that people are concerned.

BIONEERS: Who are you hoping to reach with your film, and how they can become involved?

KEELY: We hope to reach a broad audience. While we talk about Hawai‘i, we are trying to help people around the country understand the situation here as well as the broader impacts.

Poisoning Paradise is a time capsule of a grassroots movement that is seeking disclosure and environmental protections, which necessitate an Environmental Impact Statement. We want scientific data to understand how these chemicals affect our food, health, land, water, air, oceans and wildlife, and all other natural resources in the Hawaiian Islands. We want to reach out to anyone who is also interested in protecting the environment and who are involved in the food movement and sustainable agriculture. The recent rulings against Monsanto make this discussion very relevant and real.

I think education will always be part of the solution. The bottom line is that we need to move away from pesticide-heavy agriculture, and we need to put our resources into recreating regenerative, diversified agriculture systems. They remove toxic pesticides and fertilizers from the equation, and they help to protect our communities, farmworkers, and our environment.

These regenerative systems also drastically reduce agriculture’s reliance on fossil fuels, which include petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers. They help to build soil that sequesters carbon, which slows down climate change. They help to build a strong foundation of soil that captures and holds water, eliminating destructive sediment and runoff. They also make farms more drought tolerant.

I think everyone should be pushing for counties to regulate from within when it comes to pesticides. That includes your county parks, county roads, and especially your county schools. Every state and every county should be pushing to get the Department of Education to ban the use of herbicides around schools to protect children. That’s a great first start.

Also, while you might not be able to grow all your own food, grow something, or get to know your farmers at the local markets. Buy organic where you can, educate yourself about the “dirty dozen,” what to avoid unless it’s organic. Pick and choose, if you have to, which crops you can afford to buy that are organic. We want to protect our food supply. We want to protect heirloom seeds, and organic seeds. I think it’s the only way that we’re going to have a viable food system.

Be part of the solution. We need everybody’s help and everybody’s voice. I hope that audiences find Poisoning Paradise, not only informative but also beautiful to watch—it really highlights what’s at stake for all of us.

Poisoning Paradise can be seen on:

iTunes | Amazon Prime Video | YouTube | Vimeo | Google Play | Microsoft Store | Vudu


Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

Our bi-weekly newsletter provides insights into the people, projects, and organizations creating lasting change in the world.