Kyle Thiermann's mission to save the world

Ryan Craig

Thiermann's most recent project has been raising awareness of the Genetically Modified Organic crop issue. This has turned into a huge cause among surfers where Hawaii has become ground zero.

For a bunch of folks who hang out at the beach and watch each other's hair grow out, surfers sure have a lot of issues to deal with. From sewerage in the seas to green algal slime -- public beach access to toll roads, breakwaters, rising seas, superstorms, and new oil drilling. It seems there is no end of environmental threats to the sea. And surfer groups wind up being the first line of defense.

But last year, X Games Surfing interviewed Dustin Barca about the threat of genetically modified crops. Cyrus Sutton, whom we've featured numerous times is heading to Hawaii to document a few companies that practice bioengineering. Patagonia Surf Ambassador, Kyle Thiermann, of Santa Cruz, California, has also taken up this cause in Hawaii. Even Kelly Slater has been vocal about it. That's a lot of surfers interested in something that doesn't even happen in the water or on the coast. So what gives?

The GMO topic is huge in the surfing world. Why do you think that is?
It's a huge topic because Hawaii, which is ground zero for surfing, is also ground zero for GMO testing grounds globally. The Hawaiian people are suffering as a result -- a lot of people are getting sick adjacent to GMO testing fields where they're spraying restricted-use pesticides in the open air. Questions have also arisen about environmental impacts, and damage to marine life because of the chronic use of pesticides and chemical runoff. However, because the GMO corporations are not required to disclose when, what, and how much they're spraying, there's no way to do scientific studies directly linking the two or to adequately research long-term impacts. This works out well for the GMO corporations, but not for the people or the planet.

The Life and Times of Kyle Thiermann

Aside from a pretty loud and aware minority, surfers as a whole can be pretty apathetic in my experience.
I feel like apathy is the symptom of feeling overwhelmed. That's why in [our] YouTube series we make a point to give simple solutions both in the videos and on our website. When people know what they can do, the seemingly audacious problems of the world become a lot more solvable.

Explain to me your current battle with argi-business?
A fundamental issue arises when you centralize the world's food systems and give the power of our food to an elite few corporations whose goal is to control the world's food supply. It makes our food systems brittle. If you have a more diverse array for small organic farmers it can make our food systems more resilient because people are less reliant on their food coming from halfway around the world. If the majority of a community supports growing their own organic food, and big agri-business and policy-makers prevent them from doing so, I think it is an issue society needs to address. Right now, laws in Hawaii support big GMO corporations to use the land as their testing grounds, rather than more sustainable, small, organic farmers who could actually produce food for the people on the Islands. As a result, Hawaii currently needs to import 90 percent of its food.

You've actually contacted these companies for answers. Which ones did you approach and what was their response?
When we were in Hawaii filming I requested interviews from Monsanto, Pioneer, Syngenta, and DuPont. Unfortunately, they all declined. That being said, after the film was released I had a good back and forth with some Monsanto employees on Twitter. I love debates. I think a healthy discourse is important when talking about these big issues. All too often people on opposite sides just hide in trenches and throw bombs at each other without ever getting out to have the valuable dialogue. I learn a lot by listening to people who disagree so I can decide for myself what I think.

That's interesting. We interviewed Dustin Barca about this last year. He has become a major activist in Hawaii and is running for mayor of Kauai. He's also a surfer and MMA fighter, do you find that he's getting more support than a traditional activist?
Yes, I was talking to my friend who is from Kauai and he was telling me that before Barca got involved, something like 12 people would show up to the protests. Then as soon as Barca got involved people started coming out in the thousands. He's a leader and people know he doesn't have any ulterior motives like a lot of politicians or corporate elites do. It really helps when pro athletes use their exposure to help inform and engage people, like Barca and Kelly Slater are both doing on this issue.

Where do you see your role in all this?
I see myself as a conduit. My role is to translate the dry academic information into a digestible and entertaining story so the average surfers who won't sit through a two-hour long documentary can actually get educated and involved in this and other important issues.

You ride for Patagonia. Do they support your efforts?
Patagonia, Sector 9, and Cliff Bar all support my efforts along with FCS and Pacific Wave. It's special to have corporate surf sponsors who are willing to have my back when I'm out in the world covering controversial issues. A lot of companies in the surf industry are apolitical, so it feels good to put stickers on by board of companies who are willing to take a stance on controversial issues that affect us all. I think Patagonia's willingness to be bold is big reason why they have such die-hard consumers.

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