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Hawaii: A march for humanity

by Joni Kamiya

Joni Kamiya and her daughter with a converted critic

Given all the brouhaha happening around the Hawaii March for Science, I was a bit hesitant to see what would unfold.  There had been a lot of talk on social media urging people to protest my presence and the group I represented, the Alliance for Science.

As people started to gather for the rally, I saw the protesters’ signs out in the crowd. There were four protestors gathered right in the front of the media folks, holding anti-Alliance signs to make it clear they did not welcome me at this march.  

After speaking, I headed towards the table I had set up to spark conversations and talk about science.  I brought my beautiful red Indian corn cob, cotton bolls, photos of healthy GM papaya and virus-infected fruit, diseased plants, Norman Borlaug stickers and some Alliance pens and stickers.  Our table was filled with things to look at and touch, to help bring in curious people.

It was really funny when people would lean in close and ask, in a whisper, if we were about GMOs.  People were afraid to ask us what we stood for.  The other volunteers and I worked on educating people about evidence based policies and access to technology on a global scale.  When they realized what the Alliance stood for, there were so many sighs of relief and so many shared their thoughts about how cool genetic engineering seemed to be.  Many great conversations happened.

As the day went on, one of the protesters decided to stand in front of our table with his sign raised over his head to show his stance against us.  He stood there for several minutes and I realized that he’d probably stay there for a long time. I assessed the situation to make sure that if it got ugly, my kids were not around.  I decided to talk to this guy and see what his deal was.  

I approached him and said, “Why are you standing in front of our table and not coming to talk story?  That is so not local style.”  He proceeded to tell me that he had heard that the Alliance for Science was funded by Monsanto.  In my own head I was like, “oh, geez, not again.  I might have a crazy one ranting about horrible accusations.  What have I gotten myself into now?”

But I continued to talk to him and said, “You think that I’m working for Monsanto because I’m supporting GMO technology?” He said that only Monsanto would put on a booth like this with all the information and stuff.  I said no way.  I told him that I’d been up until 2:30 in the morning getting prepared for the event. I went on to tell him my story about my dad and brother’s papaya farm being saved by technology.

As that story came out, he started to realize that I wasn’t Monsanto and that GMOs like the ringspot virus-resistant papaya are good.  He said that he was a marine biologist with some training in molecular biology so he understood that.  Then he said that GMOs are bad because of pesticides.  I wanted to bang my head, but instead I smiled, took his hand and brought him to my table.  “Come here and let me show you what I’m talking about,” I told him.

I pulled out one of the lectures I had heard at Cornell on GMOs.  I showed him photos of eggplant damaged by the fruit and shoot borer, and how small farmers had to spray many times to prevent damage.  Then I showed him a photo of the Bt eggplant and how it had no damage and needed little, if any, spraying.  He told me again that he was a scientist and agreed that this application was a good thing.

An ahu is symbolic of building communities.

Despite this, he kept going on about how the pesticides were the issue.  I responded that if he wanted less pesticide, how could it be done? I waited for his answer and he realized that GM technology could be utilized to change the plant to need less spraying.  I could see a light go on in his head when he understood that.

We continued talking about vaccines, which he supported, and the amazing things happening in the world of science and agriculture and decided to take a photo together.  He said that he would try to educate his anti-GMO friends that not all GMOs mean pesticides or corporations.  I hope he follows through with his word.

A day that started out with a bit of apprehension actually turned out to be terrific.  A lot of learning took place at the Hawaii March for Science event. The atmosphere was very friendly, and people were curious and willing to talk story with each other.  We were all for something, with the exception of those protesters. Though I was asked not to talk about GMOs, pesticides, vaccines or the Thirty-Meter Telescope in my talk, the censoring didn’t stop the truth from being discussed or heard.

A poster made by Joni Kamiya’s 6-year-old daughter

The March for Science brought out a different crowd indeed and it was pretty amazing to see the civility and cooperation come out in people from all walks of life.  

What I learned from participating in this march is that those who support science and scientists themselves must be willing to take the brave step in leading our communities in the right direction.  When we are focused on a common goal that helps the greater good, we can put our energies towards the pressing problems ahead of us.  Standing aside and being unwilling to even acknowledge another person isn’t going to create a movement for a better world. The more we focus on collaboration, the better we can sustain our communities for all of humanity.

Joni Kamiya is a 2015 Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellow.

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