EXCLUSIVE: Anti-GMO harassment alleged at UH

Published: Jun. 4, 2015 at 10:27 PM HST|Updated: Jun. 4, 2015 at 11:10 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Academic freedom is usually a hallmark of a university. But one University of Hawaii professor said he was harassed by his department because his criticisms of GMOs.

Hector Valenzuela, a professor in the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, has worked at the university for more than two decades, teaching farmers how to grow organic crops.

He said his supervisors and peers in his college have repeatedly told him that his outspoken views on genetically modified crops are not welcome.

"I know they're still trying to muzzle me," said Valenzuela.

"Essentially, I was told by my immediate supervisor, my department chair, that's not supposed to be what you're doing. You shouldn't be talking about crop biotechnology."

But the university said the allegations are unfounded.

"We're a strong supporter of academic freedom. No one is ever telling anyone not to say things. In fact, he's welcome to say whatever he wants," said UH professor Mark Wright, the faculty chair of Valenzuela's department.

Crop biotechnology or genetically modified organisms are a major political controversy in Hawaii. Activists have tried to ban or restrict GMOs in Neighbor Island counties but Hawaii's courts have struck down these moratoriums.

Valenzuela is one of the few UH scientists who have come out against these types of crops. He says the harassment from his pro-GMO peers dates back decades, sometimes leading to confrontations.

In 2003, he claims his former department chair made derogatory comments about his homeland, Guatemala.

"He called my nation of origin 'worthless.' I felt insulted at the time," he said.

Last October, one of his colleagues in an email called him an "embarrassment" to the department for opposing GMOs. The email, which was later forwarded by another professor to other staffers in his department, include this insult:

"Hec, please stop already. You're simply working so hard to prove what a scientific idiot you are about items like transgenes ..."

UH says human resources officials told the author and department staffers that the email was not appropriate. But no disciplinary action was taken.

According to Valenzuela, the most recent incident allegedly occurred in February during his post-tenure review. He said that Wright, his faculty chair, told him he could talk about GMOs on his "own private time but not as a faculty member."

Wright denies that he said that, adding that Valenzuela passed his review.

Wright believes the anti-GMO crowd rely on junk science and added that genetically engineering helped save Hawaii's papaya industry and added that genetically modified seed crops are the largest ag industry in Hawaii.

Valenzuela thinks there needs to be more studies on GMOs because many of the modified seeds and crops are developed to be more resistant to pesticides. Because of that, he said the large GMO businesses are dumping more pesticides into the environment, posing potential risks for residents.

"I think it's a basic right of a faculty member to ask questions about the future of agriculture in Hawaii," Valenzuela said.

"It is my duty as a professor to ask questions about technologies that may pose a risk to the environment and the the health of the community."

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