Image by Anna Harmon.

In December 2012, all eyes were fixed on Pipeline for the last jewel of the Vans Triple Crown, the Pipe Masters. Waves were firing, videos streaming live, thousands of onlookers crowding the beach. Then, from the distance, a man approached carrying a sign, a young surfer by his side. As he walked along the water, the words became legible: “Monsanto’s GMO food poisons families.” That man was Dustin Barca. Speaking of a march he led this year in support of Kaua‘i’s bill regulating GMO companies, Barca says, “I wanted to make such a big noise that it went around the world.” And thus, the shot was fired.

In a place often called paradise, where crops can grow unimpeded by brutal cold or harsh seasons, a war is raging with direct implications for the people who call Hawai‘i home. It will determine whether we grow hardy pesticide- or pest-resistant crops that are widely exported from and possibly engineered here; if the land will be used to farm organic and sustainable food resources for its people; or if there is any way to find a safe and sane balance. There are leaders and fighters, unconcerned and undecided, funders and instigators, but until recently, on the anti-GMO side, there have been few alliances between Hawai‘i’s people, farmers, activists, and organizations.

“That’s been my goal since the beginning is bringing all the islands together and linking that chain,” says Barca, the 32-year-old professional surfer and MMA fighter from Kaua‘i who has unexpectedly stepped into the pro vs. anti GMO ring. Barca sees his movement as peaceful, a Ghandi-like uniting of consciousness and love to expel GMO and its corporations from Hawai‘i and move the islands toward a sustainable future. “I understand these companies, their whole thing is business numbers. I grew up in the surfing world, I know how numbers work. I know how business works. They’re getting the most out of everything they can about Hawai‘i. It’s our job to see the bigger picture. It’s our job to see something wrong and say, ‘Hey that’s wrong, that’s not good for our kids or the future of where we live.’”

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Image by Justin Zern.

As he says this, Barca is seated on a stool on the second story of the Oakley house, where he is the house manager, watching surfers catching waves at Off The Wall. As he talks, his palms are open, his elbows bent, and he swings his arms slightly, as if he’s warming up for a fight in his subconscious. On the shift from being a surfer and fighter averse to attention to being able to speak in front of thousands about regulating and expelling GMO companies, he says, “I’m not a religious person, but I feel like I’m on a mission from God.”

But it wasn’t always this way. Even from an early age, Barca was angry and quick to throw a punch. “I used to go to the police station all the time in Hanalei when I was in elementary school,” he says with a laugh. “I was a pretty bad kid. I just didn’t have a dad so I had no direction.” In tenth grade, Barca dropped out of high school. “They wanted to put me on Ritalin and stuff in school, and so I ended up moving to the North Shore and following my dream of becoming a pro surfer.” He became one of a handful of kids from his Kaua‘i crew, along with Bruce and Andy Irons, to make it big, but instead of establishing a name for himself for his style, he fought so much that his surf sponsorships were revoked. “At that point, I just put my head down and started putting all my energy into surfing instead of trying to prove I was somebody,” he says.

Along the way, to get in shape for surfing, Barca began taking jiu jitsu and was enamored with the humility and “the way that people carry themselves,” a stark contrast to the ego and pomp of the surf world. “The fighting side of my life has probably helped me more than anything to become a better man and human being,” Barca says. “The things you learn from jiu jitsu … Every time you do it, you are re-humbled and have to leave your ego at the door. It’s the perseverance of going beyond what my mind thinks I can do.” Though MMA can be a humbling experience, it’s certainly not without its fair share of violence. His second fight ever was at the Blaisdell arena, where he pummeled the favored Hawai‘i opponent so intensely that the fight was called in the second round.

But Barca’s bout was only just beginning. In 2007, while in France for a surf competition, someone showed him Zeitgeist, an online conspiracy theory documentary. “It exposed the government and the banks and the connection between all the corruption in the world,” he says. “I went on this crazy run of information where I just went looking in the wormhole of the messed up part about our world.” That’s when GMO came into his purview. Over the next three years, Barca dug through YouTube clips, documentaries, Wikipedia sites, literature, and news. He went to rallies, became inspired by prominent activist Walter Ritte and his focus on ‘ohana, culture, and sustainability. “Ever since I seen him talk,” Barca says, “I was like, wow I gotta frickin’ do something. What am I going to do, just sit around and watch this shit go on?”

Barca March

Image by Justin Zern.

Since then, Barca has become a leader in the anti-GMO movement, recognizable by the large megaphone he holds at events and his fighter’s stance paired with a calm intensity. He has gone from erratic posts on social media channels set up to support his surfing and MMA careers to, in 2013, coordinating March in March, which consisted of demonstrations on all five islands that GMO crops are grown (O‘ahu, Kaua‘i, Maui, Moloka‘i, and Lāna‘i). At the march on Kaua‘i, his grandmother walked almost four miles barefoot in the rain with thousands of other attendees.

In the time since Barca has gotten involved, Kaua‘i has passed legislation that requires companies to disclose the pesticides being sprayed on crops and any experimental crops being farmed on the island, though the county is now being sued over this legislation by DuPont, Syngenta, and Agrigenetics Inc. Hawai‘i Island just passed legislation banning all GMO except for the rainbow papaya, but it is yet to be seen if this will stand.

At the most recent Pipe Masters, Barca repeated his silent walk in front of tens of thousands during the final day of the competition, blocking the view for many of Kelly Slater getting barreled. This time, the sign read, “Kamehemeha Schools Evict Monsanto.”

“Basically, [Kamehameha Schools] said, ‘find us the solution,’ so that’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to find somebody who is ready to do high level organic farming, or who wants to back financially a high level-farming trip. We’re working on business plans for the businesses. … We want to have all the eggs lined up for the opportunity when we have it,” he says. His personal farming dreams start with circulatory livestock farming—plots of land being grazed by cattle, rotating to chickens who fertilize the land with their feces, to organic farming the nutrient-rich soil area until it’s time to bring the cattle back. “I see a lot of my future is going to be in farming. Hopefully I don’t have to get into politics, but a lot of people want me to possibly run for mayor because my intentions are right. I think for me, the future is going to be in a lot of building sustainability in Hawai‘i.”

But all that aside, what it boils down to for Barca is this: “I’m the sorest loser—I don’t see myself losing this fight. No way.”