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When a Ripple Becomes a Wave: What Happened When the Man Who Beat Monsanto Came to Hawai'i

By Autumn Ness, Co-Director of the Hawai'i Center for Food Safety

July 30, 2019
Center for Food Safety

When a Ripple Becomes a Wave: What Happened When the Man Who Beat Monsanto Came to Hawai'i

When you're managing a small grassroots campaign fighting against the powerful pesticide-seed industry, it's easy to feel like your actions are just small drops in a big bucket. You organize for years to move the needle just one small sliver forward. Though each win is important, they can feel small in comparison with all of the work that still needs to be done.  

As a surfer, it can feel like you are paddling endlessly through choppy waters, where each forward stroke is met with resistance from elements on all sides. It's tiring and inefficient.  

But every once in a while, the sea calms, the wind stops, all of our little ripples work together in the same direction to make one large, powerful wave.  And any surfer knows, these moments are when the magic happens.

That's what happened when Lee Johnson and his family came to Hawai'i. 

For years, a committed group of organizations—including the Hawai'i Center for Food Safety and individuals across Hawai'i—have been working to lighten the load of pesticide use on our islands. We spent three to four years getting a handful of parks to eliminate pesticides. We organized for over a decade just to get access to information about pesticide use in our communities, and to create small no-spray buffer zones around our schools.  

Meanwhile in California, Lee Johnson was fighting his own battle. He was preparing what would become the first ever successful lawsuit against Monsanto/Bayer, when a jury ruled that Johnson's Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma was a direct result of his use of Roundup. Since Johnson's victory, a judge declared Monsanto responsible in two similar cases, and there are now more than 13,000 lawsuits against Monsanto/Bayer in process.

Knowing that it would make history, I followed Johnson's case closely. Lee Johnson stood up against a powerful company, with seemingly endless resources, even while being warned not to. Monsanto/Bayer appealed the decision—of course—and Johnson's road to a final ruling in court will be a long one. But he's not stopping there. 

Johnson and his family came to Hawai'i to help us with our efforts last month. When the ripples of his story in California united with our years of organizing here in Hawai'i, waves of change started to crest.  

For two weeks, we had the pleasure of hosting Lee and his family while we toured across four islands, spreading his powerful story. When they arrived, they were strangers, but we soon became friends. Fresh off the airplane, I showed Lee how to open coconuts in the back of my truck, and we shared fresh picked mango and lychee. I could tell his background was in landscaping by the way he immediately focused on all of the tropical plants around us. He was in awe. "This place is paradise. Why would anyone think it's a good idea to dump poisons on the land here?" he wondered.

Over the next two weeks, Johnson and I had inspiring conversations with people on Maui, 'Oahu, Big Island, and Kaua'i about the true cost of using toxic pesticides to manage weeds on public lands. He shared his story with the people who spray our parks and roadways, County Council members, and the Department of Education. We enlisted the help of Duane Sparkman, an organic landscaper, to educate people about safer alternatives. We have been organizing and meeting with these agencies to discuss eliminating pesticides from public lands for years, but this time I noticed a difference in reception; Lee's presence in the room contributed to a marked shift in the conversation.

For years, we had been told: 

"I understand your concerns about possible risks of pesticides, but we are following all federal and state laws."

"We have a limited budget, and can't afford to manage weeds with anything more expensive or labor intensive."

But with Lee's powerful story on our side, we were paddling through smoother seas. The resistance we had faced previously suddenly shifted to sincere questions about potential challenges, brainstorming solutions together, and commitments to try new pest control strategies. We agreed to share information, and to move away from pesticides in our public spaces. A collective understanding that we HAVE to do better emerged.

The wave crested at the Board of Education hearing, where Lee spoke to concerned parents and the superintendent of Hawai'i public schools. We were all seated in a circle in an elementary school library. The passion and concern for the health of our children was palpable. Lee talked about his job as the Integrated Pest Management Specialist for a school district in California. He talked about how he followed all of the safety protocols, wore the protective gear, and used pesticides only as a last resort. He did everything to protect himself and got sick anyway. He described his new mission to keep kids safe from the pesticides that had given him cancer. The very next morning, Hawai'i's superintendent acted with unprecedented speed and issued a notice that the use of herbicides is banned on school grounds in all public schools in the state, followed by instructions advising schools how to dispose of any pesticides currently on school grounds.

We have been working toward these goals, in increments, for years. In a period of just two weeks, everything shifted. The years and years we spent on grassroots education and community organizing, priming Hawai'i for this change, had paid off. Hawai'i was ready to commit to herbicide-free schools. An educated public, Lee's experience, solutions-oriented discussions, and media coverage all came together. I believe that organic land management of our public lands across Hawai'i is something that we will achieve, very soon. And I didn't believe that a few weeks ago.

Between meetings over the course of these two weeks, Lee's family and organizers across Hawai'i ate together, swam together, and played music together. Our kids became friends. We discussed what motivated us to do this work, and what makes it challenging.

Right before they left, Lee said to me, "I don't know what you guys did to me, but I've been smiling so much my face hurts."  

I know the feeling. When the perfect wave breaks; you paddle, drop in, and get a smooth ride down the face of it. It's your reward for all of the hard work you put in to get yourself to that moment. It happens because you had the patience to get through all the choppy days, knowing that eventually, all of the ocean's chaos and energy will converge, smooth out, and create a beautiful, perfect wave.  

To all of the organizers, activists, movement makers out there: Keep paddling! You never know when the little ripples will become a big, beautiful wave.

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