The silencing of Hector Valenzuela
As the University of Hawai‘i was cozying up to GMO giant Monsanto, one of the school’s professors says that he was forced to tolerate a climate of “bigotry, retaliation and hostility” for speaking out about the potential risks of genetic engineering. The university disputes his charges.
Above: Hector Valenzuela stands in the midst of his former organic research plot at the university’s Waimānalo Experiment Station | Will Caron
The islands of Hawai‘i are like a magnet for attracting insects from all over the world. Bugs catch a ride on every ship headed to the islands, and state authorities often find bug species they’d never seen before. And the bugs stay.
As Hawai‘i has no winter frost to beat back pests, over time this accumulation of bugs started to become a problem, especially for farmers. Their response: apply a heavy dose of chemicals. A Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture report from 1969 said Hawai‘i’s farmers were using pesticides at a rate 10 times higher than the national average (pounds per acre).
In 1993, Dr. Hector Valenzuela, then a non-tenured professor of tropical plant and soil science at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, began a long-term research project to determine whether it’s possible to grow crops in the state without synthetic pesticides. Valenzuela who, in 1990, received his Ph.D. in vegetable crops from the University of Florida, established the first long-term organic farming research project in Hawai‘i and the Pacific region.
Valenzuela planted 50 varieties of vegetables—including tomato, daikon radish, bulb onion, cucumber, eggplant, zucchini, bush beans, pole beans, sweet potato and bell pepper—on 2.5 acres at the university’s Waimānalo Experiment Station, located some 15 miles from the Mānoa campus in the southeast corner of O‘ahu. With an enrollment of about 20,000, the Mānoa campus, located a few miles from downtown Honolulu, is the largest of the 19 units in the University of Hawai‘i system. The College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR), where Valenzuela teaches, was established in 1907 and is the largest and oldest unit within the Mānoa campus.
By 1999, Valenzuela had initiated several long-term research projects at Waimānalo. The organic farming plots were his research laboratory.
But it all came to an end inexplicably in 1998 when Charles Laughlin, then the dean of CTAHR, shut down the organic farming research project. Valenzuela recalls the dean’s exact words: “You can no longer use those plots.” Laughlin had decided that a Japanese religious group would use them instead.
“I saw the removal of my field laboratory as an infringement of my academic freedom,” Valenzuela says. “The college prevented me from exploring new methods of agriculture that challenged the college’s central vision about the future of agriculture in Hawai‘i.”
It was just the first in a series of professional setbacks for Valenzuela, now 54. For the last decade, he has been a specialist in the university’s Crop Extension Service, where his job has been to work with farmers and community leaders around Hawai‘i on issues like sustainability and organic farming. But throughout most of his tenure at the university, the school has been a cheerleader for pesticide-intensive crop biotechnologies, not pesticide-free organic farming.
Five large agrochemical corporations are experimenting with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on farmland throughout the state, and the university’s expansive crop biotechnology program assists with the research.
Valenzuela got in trouble with his superiors, he says, when he provided information to farmers and citizens who were concerned about the potential “contamination of crops, seed supplies, public lands, and native ecosystems by GMOs.”
Banned from Three Islands
Disseminating information, when asked, is a big part of Valenzeula’s job as an extension specialist. But emails from his superiors show that they did not want him to spread any information that ran counter to the school’s pro-GMO message while on the job. For example, starting in 2006, he was banned from conducting organic farming workshops and other events on Maui, Kaua‘i, and Hawai‘i island.
Valenzuela said he was the only member in his department who wanted the university to teach “farmers how to sustain crops without having to rely on chemicals [and] genetic modification.” As a result, he said, he “was not allowed to interact with farmers, members of the public, and undergraduate students who had questions about agricultural sustainability and about the science behind crop biotechnology.”
In addition, he has been stripped of several simple privileges that other professors at the university take for granted, such as the right to make long distance calls on university lines, and the free use of a university van. He says these insults were compounded by a number of personal attacks in which his superiors called him derogatory names, including one that was racially tinged.
“I am not an anti-GMO person, and I have never served as a spokesman for any anti-GMO group,” he adds. “I have indeed questioned the science behind the field of crop biotechnology, and have engaged in a discussion with farmers, students, and with the general public about these issues. A central issue in the debate about crop biotechnology is to ensure that our regulatory agencies are following the proper protocols, based on federal and state laws, to ensure the safety of consumers, of the environment, and the long-term viability of our agricultural industries.”
Harold Keyser, formerly the university extension administrator on Maui, forced Valenzuela’s banishment from that island. Keyser wrote an email accusing Valenzuela of “criticizing CTAHR (College of Tropical Agriculture) faculty and programs with intellectually dishonest arguments and actively supporting the poisonous activities of groups basically opposed to CTAHR, science and progress. It would be insane for me to assist him in Maui County—hiding behind a guise of free-speech on personal time.”
Keyser, who has since retired and now writes a pro-GMO blog, did not respond to a request for an interview.
Keyser went on to write that Valenzuela’s criticism of GMOs “is not educational, and is insulting to our organization and several of our clients. There are enough nutjobs here without helping a CTAHR-grown one.”
In 2006, Keyser stated in an email that if Valenzuela held one more community meeting on the island he could no longer use the university’s research station there to conduct workshops. “If he shows up to spew his intellectual vitriol on Tuesday (or any other time if it is for the same purpose), no assistance in any form will be provided from here on activities to which he is related,” Keyser said in an email that year.
Valenzuela said his banishment from Maui was revoked in 2012.
Above: Valenzuela wears a Hawaiʻi Organic Farming Association (HOFA) long-sleeve. | Will Caron
Monsanto Money and Influence
Valenzuela documented all his allegations against the university in memos he created contemporaneously with the events they describe, and in an archive of emails sent to his inbox. He included them when he compiled the allegations in a formal “loss of academic freedom” complaint he filed in 2010 with Dr. Andrew G. Hashimoto, the dean at CTAHR.
After conducting an inquiry, Hashimoto rejected the allegations. “I do not believe that Dr. Valenzuela’s academic freedom was compromised in any way,” Hashimoto wrote. “His positions have been challenged because many in the college feel that his positions are not supported by reliable peer-reviewed research results, but his right to express his position has not been inhibited.
“His claims of retaliation are also unfounded as the actions he cited were the result of non-performance. He spends most of his time making presentations about the problems with biotechnology, which he has the academic freedom to do, but not at the expense of doing his assigned responsibilities.”
Hashimoto added, “Agricultural biotechnology is a controversial issue, with strong proponents for and against it, in society and within CTAHR. I have encouraged civil dialogue on this and other issues within the college. Because this is a controversial issue, the exchange has been heated at times, but I believe they fall within the bounds of academic discourse.”
It is odd that Hashimoto dismissed the personal attacks against Valenzuela as “within the bounds of academic discourse.” In public, or in private emails, Valenzuela says that his superiors called him a “jihadist,” a “liar,” “worthless,” and, as in the email from Keyser, a “nutjob.”
Moreover, after a close look at documents in the dossier, it is clear that Hashimoto’s central claim that the harassment and intimidation were “the result of non-performance” does not hold up. Hashimoto did not respond to a request for an interview.
The university awarded tenure to Valenzuela in 1995, a promotion to full professor in 2000, and high marks in periodic post-tenure reviews. In the most recent review in 2010, he received stinging rebukes from Hashimoto and his department chair, Dr. Bob Paull, but the university “did not find any deficiencies” in Valenzuela’s performance, according to a letter signed by University Chancellor Virginia Hinshaw.
Valenzuela has published more than 500 scholarly works on sustainable farming and bioengineering during his 24 years at the university, with titles like, “Ecologically-based practices for Vegetable Production in the Tropics.” Publishing scholarly works, however, is not his primary responsibility, which he says is “outreach” and “informal” educational activities.
Curiously, his case file includes a handwritten note from Hashimoto sent in 2005: “I had a chance to review your post-tenure review material a while back, and just wanted to drop you a note to thank you for all you do in support of the college.”
But Hashimoto had dramatically changed his tune by the second post-tenure review, which occurred around the time the university was strengthening its ties with Monsanto, the agrochemical giant which has large GMO research and development operations on Maui, O‘ahu, and Moloka‘i. In 2009, CTAHR appointed Frederick Perlak, the head of operations for Monsanto in Hawai‘i, to its board of advisors. In a news release, CTAHR said the purpose of the board, formed in 2004, was to establish priorities for “the development of new food and non-food products from farmers in Hawai‘i.”
Soon after, corporate money from Monsanto began to flow.
In June 2010, one month after Hashimoto denied Valenzuela’s academic freedom complaint, CTAHR received a $100,000 donation from Monsanto for scholarships. Then in November 2010, Monsanto donated $20,000 to fund Gene-ius Day, a program at the college that introduces students from grades 4 through 12 to “basic genetics and the function of DNA.” And in September 2011, Monsanto gave an additional $500,000 to the college, bringing its total donations to CTAHR to $620,000 within a period of a little more than a year.
English Professor Cynthia Franklin, one of the few faculty members at the university to publicly support Valenzuela, said taking money from corporations like Monsanto can influence, “in troubling ways,” the intellectual inquiry that should be at the heart of education and research.
“Monsanto is not just any corporation,” she says, given its well-documented history of lawsuits against farmers and its toxic contamination of scores of industrial sites across the United States. As far back as 2008, in an investigation of Monsanto published in Vanity Fair, Donald L. Bartlett and James B. Steele reported that, “Farmers call them the ‘seed police’ and use words such as ‘Gestapo’ and ‘Mafia’ to describe their tactics.”
Shocked, Insulted and Humiliated
Valenzuela said many of the personal attacks against him came from university administrators “under the approving eye of the dean, as they continued to persist over the years.”
For example, he claims that in 2003, Paull, then chair of the Department of Tropical Plants and Soil Sciences (which is part of CTAHR), called Valenzuela’s nation of origin “worthless.” Valenzuela was born in Guatemala.
“I felt shocked, insulted, and humiliated,” he says. “This was in front of the farm crew when we were working in the field, perhaps harvesting or collecting data. I sent an email to the dean (Hashimoto) but I never heard back.”
Valenzuela added that Paull also sometimes said people who question the safety of GMO products are “jihadists.”
In an interview by email, Paull would not confirm or deny he made any ad hominem attacks. Instead, he said the accusation “is not worthy of a response.”
“Dr. Valenzuela has been told many times that he, as a citizen, is free to speak out on anything,” Paull said. “I know of no examples where Dr. Valenzuela’s activities have been impeded. He seems to be of the opinion that academic freedom means that he cannot be criticized or questioned.”
But in a March 5, 2005, memo to Valenzuela, Paull clarified that it is improper for him to discuss his concerns about GMOs on university time. “There is no conflict if these activities are carried out as a private citizen and it is on your own time,” Paull stated.
Valenzuela said Paull has been “unable to provide a rationale” as to why he cannot address concerns about the potential risks of crop biotechnology during work hours. “I have consistently stated that not catering to the needs of particular segments of the population would be discriminatory, and in violation of nondiscriminatory policies.”
Valenzuela’s relationship with many fellow faculty members began to sour in 2004 when he announced he was showing The Future of Food, a documentary critical of genetic engineering, to students. An increasingly hostile exchange of about 30 emails protesting the showing were posted to a university listserv.
In 2006, it soured further after he announced his intention to attend the showing on Maui of another documentary critical of biotechnology, Pandora’s Box. This time he encountered an even greater level of harassment, including—but not limited to—the travel ban to the island.
In 2007, Valenzuela was barred from attending a weekend retreat on Hawai‘i island. At the retreat, held on an organic farm, he was to discuss issues of sustainability and biotechnology with organic farmers and community leaders. And, in 2009, he was told he could no longer give lectures on sustainable agriculture and biotechnology to undergraduate students at Kaua‘i Community College in Līhuʻe.
Above: A row of plants growing at Valenzuela’s former research plot. | Will Caron
Silicon Valley of the Plant World
In the late 1990s, officials from the governor on down could hardly control their hyperbolic enthusiasm for genetic engineering.
In 1998, the same year Valenzuela lost his organic research project, the university started to market seeds for a genetically modified type of papaya that it had co-developed with Cornell University. This new “Rainbow” papaya was resistant to a ringspot virus that had threatened to put papaya farmers throughout Hawaiʻi out of business. Researchers had stitched together genetic material from multiple sources, creating new sequences in papaya DNA—the genetic instructions in living organisms—that otherwise did not exist in nature.
That year, Hawaiʻi Governor Ben Cayetano told a Honolulu newspaper that the state was becoming the “Silicon Valley of the plant and ocean world.” In 1999, Michael Harrington, then interim dean at CTAHR, revealed a key benefit of the budding biotechnology program: “Millions and millions of dollars are to be made” from genetic engineering. (Today the biotech industry says it employs about 2,000 people in Hawaiʻi, and has an economic impact of $342 million.)
But the university’s earnest effort to replicate its early success with papaya fizzled. Over the ensuing years, its 14 attempts at producing or releasing another genetically modified fruit or vegetable failed, including anthurium, banana, dendrobrium orchid, cabbage, lettuce, coffee, pineapple, stevia, sugar cane, taro, tomato, Mexican lime, citrus and watercress.
The university has also unsuccessfully tried to genetically modify tilapia and shrimp—work that attracted the attention and support of Monsanto.
New Pesticides, Old Concerns
Recent studies show that the concerns about GMOs that Valenzuela began voicing two decades ago are not unreasonable. Valenzuela never said he had any definitive proof that GMOs are unsafe. But he says new data has emerged suggesting that pesticides used in the research and development of GMO seeds, or in their cultivation on the farm, pose potential risks that may be significant. More research is needed before anyone can say for sure, he says, but they raise important questions that need to be resolved.
For example, he said, the five agrochemical companies—Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, DuPont and BASF—that are conducting open-air GMO experiments in Hawaiʻi are applying generous amounts of pesticides to their fields. The state of Hawaiʻi requires four of these companies—all except Monsanto—to publicize data revealing how many pounds they are using of the most toxic pesticides.
These data show, for example, that these companies are applying chlorpyrifos at a rate that’s five times the national average. Chlorpyrifos, the most widely used bug killer in the world, is a neurotoxin found to damage the brains of developing children.
Moreover, they are applying the weed killer atrazine at a rate that’s 14 times the national average. Dr. Tyrone Hayes, an epidemiologist at the University of California-Berkeley, has discovered that atrazine, the second most widely used herbicide in the U.S., impedes the sexual development of frogs, while other scientists have found that atrazine is associated with birth defects in humans, according to a profile of Hayes in The New Yorker.
These and other kinds of toxic chemicals are being applied to GMO test fields located near schools on the island of Kauaʻi. Some of the world’s most biologically diverse ecosystems are also situated close by.
The state does not require the agrochemical companies to divulge how much they use of the world’s most heavily used herbicide, glyphosate, because the state deems glyphosate to be not toxic enough to be of concern. But glyphosate, commonly sold by Monsanto under the product name Roundup, may not be so benign after all.
In March 2015, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as a “probable carcinogen” based on its review of several studies. The industry has asked the agency to retract that finding. A Monsanto employee, who declined to identify himself, told a small group at a recent Ag Fair on Maui that the WHO study consisted of nothing more than a roomful of experts who spent just five days reviewing several decades’ worth of research.
After countless glyphosate applications over many years and many millions of acres worldwide, “superweeds” evolved that are resistant to glyphosate. Today, 22 types of weeds worldwide are glyphosate-resistant, according to a Purdue University study.
A paper posted to the University of Hawaiʻi’s web site by Professor Ania Wieczorek, “Use of Biotechnology in Agriculture—Benefits and Risks,” suggests that the proliferation of pesticide-resistant weeds is a problem that can be solved simply by spraying more chemicals. “Resistance to a specific herbicide does not mean that the plant is resistant to other herbicides, so affected weeds could still be controlled with other products,” she writes.
Wieczorek, who is director of CTAHR’s educational programs for middle- and high-school children, did not respond to a request for an interview.
New mixtures of pesticides can rekindle old concerns. A new Dow Chemical herbicide, Enlist Duo, blends 2,4-D and glyphosate to kill weeds in genetically engineered corn and soybeans fields. The herbicide 2,4-D has been around for decades and was an active ingredient in the Vietnam War-era Agent Orange that is linked to reproductive problems and cancer. Monsanto’s new Roundup Xtend Herbicide combines glyphosate and dicamba, the latter also an old herbicide known to volatilize and drift onto nearby fields, where it can cause damage to someone else’s crops.
“Because many farmers can no longer rely on glyphosate alone, overall herbicide use in the United States—which Roundup was supposed to help reduce—has instead gone up,” according to a 2013 policy brief by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
But Monsanto—referencing a 2014 German meta-analysis—says that GMO technology has increased crop yields by 22 percent, reduced pesticide use by 37 percent, and increased farmer profits by 68 percent.
In her paper, Wieczorek claims that many people, when confronted with statements about the effects of genetic engineering on the environment and the food supply, become confused or afraid. She doesn’t say whether it’s reasonable for people to be concerned about the heavy application of toxic pesticides in open-air GMO field tests near schools and sensitive ecosystems on Kauaʻi. “This fear can be aroused by only a minimal amount of information or, in some cases, misinformation,” she writes.
CTAHR’s web site provides examples of some of the information—or misinformation—the school disseminates to younger students. One is a little ditty entitled the “DNA Rap,” which it says is a “fun” presentation that “introduces the importance of DNA research in the field of agriculture.” It ignores some of the less fun qualities of GMO production, including the emergence of superweeds and the heavy application of dangerous chemicals near schools. It also suggests that scientists can improve crop yields by genetically modifying crops to resist winds, floods and drought, which they have not been able to do, as yet. It goes like this:
It’s DNA that is the key
To finding better crops
That will make farming easier for me!
What we’re gonna need
Is the corn bugs don’t like!
Another trait that a crop needs
Is to keep growing strong
While the farmers fight the weeds.
There’s one more thing that we could use
How about some plants that won’t take abuse
From wind or floods
Or dry drought weather
Hey I think it’s time for us farmers and scientists
To all work together!
Silencing Valenzuela’s Allies
Valenzuela is not the only professor at the University of Hawaiʻi who has been harassed for voicing concerns about biotechnology. After Cynthia Franklin, the English professor, made negative comments to Ka Leo O Hawaiʻi, the Mānoa campus’ student newspaper, about the donations to the school from Monsanto, she found her email inbox stuffed with what she describes as “uncollegial emails from university faculty accusing me of being ignorant and full of anti-corporate bias.”
“After all, their arguments went, I was an English professor—what did I know about GMOs?” she says. “They implied I should stick to Shakespeare and leave the science to CTAHR.”
In response to this criticism, Franklin says, “I do not teach Shakespeare. I do specialize in cultural studies, which involves interdisciplinary inquiry into how economic interests are ideologically sustained. As a cultural studies scholar, I approach the question of GMOs as one not limited to science and scientists. GMOs are big businesses with significant impact on labor practices, local and global economies, food culture and consumption. Moreover, the corporatization of the university—a phenomenon directly related to Monsanto money going to CTAHR—is a topic that falls very much within the purview of cultural critics and is one central to my own research.”
A few other faculty members at the University of Hawaiʻi have privately revealed, in emails to Valenzuela, their concerns about biotechnology and the way he has been treated. But none of the other faculty members were willing to divulge their names, for fear of retaliation.
One professor wrote in 2008 that it was difficult for him to step forward. “I suspect there will be consequences for me.”
“I personally support your rights to balanced viewpoints,” said another email from a professor in 2004. “The attack emails… this is so disrespectful. Please know that there are some of us who like and respect you even though we [are] a bit too cowardly to publicly say so.”
“I’m sorry we are not a more open academic culture,” another professor wrote in 2004. “Universities are supposed to be the place where we discuss and debate issues. Thank you for having the courage to do what you do.”
In some ways, this pattern of harassment is similar to what Tyrone Hayes, the aforementioned professor at the University of California-Berkeley, faced in recent years while conducting research into the harmful health and environmental effects of atrazine.
For more than a decade, Syngenta, atrazine’s manufacturer, hounded Hayes. For example, Syngenta created a list of things it could do to Hayes, including: “set trap to entice him to sue,” “investigate funding,” and “investigate wife,” The New Yorker reported.
In the case of Tyrone Hayes, it was the corporation, not the university that persecuted the professor. In Valenzuela’s case, it was his colleagues, arguably working to advance a corporate agenda, who targeted the professor. But if the intent of the harassment was to silence their voices, it hasn’t worked. They both continue to speak out.