Why surf filmmaker Cyrus Sutton made a documentary about GMO agriculture

Did you know that the state of Hawaii imports between 80 and 90 percent of its food? This is, among other reasons, because of the looming presence of the industrial agriculture companies that operate on the abundance of farm lands, growing and testing genetically modified crops (GMO) and seeds for export globally and to the mainland United States.

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This is the subject of “Island Earth”, the newest documentary from surf filmmaker/professional surfer Cyrus Sutton. He is most notably known for his wave-riding acumen, his early adoption of the #VanLife and for creating the on-foot surf adventure “Stoked & Broke.”

Cyrus Sutton

After traveling to Hawaii for years to surf, Cyrus Sutton embedded himself in the state’s food sovereignty battles. Photo: Bailey Rebecca Roberts

His latest film carries much more weight, as he examines how the GMO industry is changing Hawaii with widespread use of pesticides and legislative entanglements, having awakened a citizenry that is not willing to sit by idly as their food supply is determined for them.

So what led Sutton, an extremely successful professional surfer and surf filmmaker, to dive into a topic of such magnitude? We chatted with Sutton himself to find out why he made this movie and why it is such an important issue.

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Coming from the surf world, what made you want to make a film about GMOs?

The majority of GMO seeds are tested and developed in Hawaii, a place I grew up going to and surfing. They are tested to withstand the application of a slew of pesticides that both our government and the scientific community agree are toxic to the environment and human health. These pesticides poison the air and watersheds which drain out to surfers and the reef.

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Hawaii is the birthplace of our surfing culture. As someone who has received a lot from the ocean over the years, it is my responsibility to use my knowledge in film to create something that shares the nuances around the ways we grow our food and hopefully inspires a deeper dialogue about how what we eat affects our bodies, our planet and our cultures.

How’d you become aware of Hawaii’s problems with industrial agriculture companies?

Surfing made me conscious of my health, so I didn't eat them [GMOs] but was generally ambivalent about the issue. Then I started hearing about the pesticide issues on Kauai's Westside and the kids getting poisoned next to GMO fields.

The multiple school evacuations of Waimea Canyon Middle School followed by the lack of transparency by the companies mushroomed into an islands-wide battle. As a surfer, naturally I have a few friends there involved with this issue and that started this journey.

How did making this film differ from making your past films?

Coming from surfing films, it’s night and day. Most of my films have relied on humor and artistry to craft a compelling story. This film is fact-based.

A solid year went into research and fact-checking with experts on these issues to determine which scientists, doctors and activists were credible. It took three years to make because of this.

What are a couple of your takeaways after having made the film?

I’ve been overwhelmed by the process of making the film itself and by the enormity of the problems we face in world. But this struggle has taught me a lot.

A well-established editor told me last year, “Documentary films are just structured research, you might have an idea at the beginning of the film but you have to go about making them with a sense of open-minded, respectful investigation.”

Pro surfer Dustin Barca, who hails from Kauai and is a major subject of the film as he attempted to run for mayor of Kauai. Photo: Courtesy of Cyrus Sutton/Island Earth

Conducting myself in this way has given me an immense respect for people who devote their lives to understanding our natural world through science and on the farm.

I’ve learned that the GMO issue isn’t black or white and that the solution might just be shifting our focus away from the merits or dangers of technologies and focusing on how we use those technologies.

I’ve come to see a common thread in many of the problems we face and believe they are solvable if we can balance our current globalized approaches of survival by taking it upon ourselves to establish local community-based systems of creating and distributing resources. But it’s going to take patience and creativity.

It’s much easier to take what is handed to us and complain about it, than it is to create the solutions.

Head to islandearthfilm.com to learn more and see how you can get involved.