With little public discussion, Hawai'i has become a world leader in open-field testing of transgenic crops - genetically engineered or genetically modified organisms. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

By Joan Conrow

LIHUE, Kauai (Honolulu Weekly, Jan. 28) - The corn fields that flank Waimea town on Kaua'i's west side look innocent enough at first glance. Their dark green stalks, in vivid contrast to the red soil, bend gently in the wind. To some local residents, these plots represent a means for earning a wage, a way to keep agriculture alive in Hawai'i, an exciting new prospect for feeding Earth's hungry masses. But to others, they signify all that is wrong with the world, a world they see as increasingly controlled by corporate interests with little regard for human health, environmental integrity or God's design.

Welcome to the controversial arena of genetically engineered agriculture, fast becoming one of Hawai'i's most contentious topics. This is especially true on the neighbor islands, where the collapse of sugar cane has left vast acreages of fallow land and where farming is welcomed both for the jobs it provides and its ability to keep the landscape green and appealing to tourists.

The availability of land, coupled with local and state government support for agriculture and a year-round growing season, has made Hawai'i a popular place for the large, agribusiness companies that develop and grow conventional hybrid seed crops. As these companies, including Dow AgroSciences, Monsanto, Syngenta Seeds Inc. and Dupont, move into "transgenic" crops, their island operations have shifted too.

With little public discussion, Hawai'i has become a world leader in open-field testing of transgenic crops, also known as genetically engineered (GE) or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Genetic modification of food plants involves altering gene lines or mixing genes across species to create plants with specific, desirable characteristics; e.g., disease, insect and herbicide resistance; compact size to decrease space requirements and increase yield; and various taste and durability qualities.

While biotechnology crops are grown as well in Canada, China and various South American and Asian countries, Hawai'i leads the U.S. in test sites, with 319 permitted as of 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Currently, eight companies are farming about 7,500 acres throughout Hawai'i, primarily on neighbor islands but also on O'ahu, as part of the state's seed research industry, worth $36 million annually, which includes both genetically modified and traditional hybrid crops. The biggest transgenic crop in the islands is corn - genetically engineered to improve insect and disease resistance, among other traits, to increase the yield and the value of the product - but transgenic soybeans, sunflowers, tobacco, papaya, sugar cane, rice, barley, wheat and taro also are being grown. Some sites have been approved for research and testing purposes, while other fields produce the parent seed that is then cultivated elsewhere, usually in the Midwest, for sale as patented seed to farmers.

Genetically modified sweet corn and papaya are grown locally for direct sale to the public, and the Food and Drug Administration does not require any specific labeling to advise consumers they are purchasing transgenic foods.

While much of the transgenic seed research has been aimed at producing food and animal feed, some of the companies have begun moving into what is known as "bio-pharming." This is the more controversial practice of cultivating transgenic crops to produce industrial chemicals and pharmaceutical proteins, such as vaccines, hormones, blood clotters, blood thinners, antibodies and contraceptives.

Although the seed companies have long been considered good neighbors - and welcome partners in the drive to keep Hawai'i agriculture viable - last year they fell under intense local scrutiny as events emerged that prompted residents to get organized and start questioning the industry and its practices around the state.

On the Big Island, the controversy was fueled in part by proposals to test a transgenic coffee, which some feared would destroy the gourmet and organic market niche carefully carved out by Kona coffee farmers. A broad spectrum of farmers and residents organized and got the Hawai'i County Council to adopt a resolution last fall that would prevent GMO coffee from being planted until a regional regulatory protocol is established.

"The market was on our side," says Una Greenaway of HIGEAN (Hawai'i Genetic Engineering Action Network), which formed last year to educate people about the issue. "Japan won't touch it if it's GMO, and farmers were worried about losing that market. With commodity issues, like corn, people are not so concerned."

"We definitely want more regulations," Greenaway said of her organization's goals."There are some regulations, but the big issue is enforcement," she pointed out. "Most of us would not like to see any more GMOs, but we're not necessarily opposed to research being done in labs. But none of this rampant release of genetic material into the environment."

The Big Island-based Hawai'i Organic Farmers Association (HOFA) recently launched an organic certification program for Island farmers and issued a policy statement calling for a moratorium on the release of all GMOs into Hawai'i's environment until a regulatory protocol has been established.

HOFA maintains that the industry should be held liable for damages incurred by unintentional genetic contamination of other crops. Contamination can be caused by pollen drifting from genetically engineered fields onto organic farms. This problem has been documented in Canada and on the U.S. mainland. It is an issue with serious financial ramifications for organic farmers, because GMOs are prohibited under federal organic labeling standards. Others worry that GMOS could taint their crops with undesirable colors and tastes, or transfer potentially harmful genetic material.

Folks on Kaua'i began to organize last summer, when the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would investigate the DuPont subsidiary, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, the world's leading developer and supplier of advanced plant genetics, for possible permit violations regarding inadequate containment procedures for some of its test sites. Pioneer has about 1,000 acres in cultivation on Kaua'i and O'ahu. Although the company and the EPA later settled on a $9,900 fine and no admission or denial of wrongdoing, the investigation galvanized some residents in a way that had not previously been seen on Kaua'i.

Radio host Michael Van De Veer began regularly denouncing the industry in his weekly talk show on community station KKCR. He said he would set himself on fire in front of the station if he thought it would stop the cultivation of GMO crops in Hawai'i. North Shore Kaua'i resident Elizabeth Diamond, billing herself as "the Corn Angel," was a frequent caller on the station's talk shows, offering free organic corn plants to people who wanted to grow them in protest of GMO corn on Kaua'i.

"It's a global question," Van De Veer said, likening the release of GMOs into the environment to atomic testing in Bikini Atoll following World War II. "We don't really have enough information to make a decision, yet decisions are being made that could very well determine our future, literally."By election time last November, some residents saw the issue as a litmus test of sorts for mayoral candidates, who generally espoused ignorance on the subject but expressed a willingness to be educated.

Newly elected Kaua'i Mayor Bryan Baptiste said the community should work together to address the topic if it decides it's important enough. Defeated mayoral candidate and former County Council Chairman Ron Kouchi introduced a resolution supporting labeling of all genetically engineered products. The resolution still is under discussion, but public hearings on the proposal further mobilized opponents and dismayed local seed company managers, who suddenly found themselves in the hot seat, defending their industry.

Pollen drift

"When we first started doing work with GE crops, it was new and people were excited about it," said Kevin McMahon, location manager for Syngenta Seeds Inc., which grows primarily insect-resistant transgenic corn and soybeans on about 300 acres on Kaua'i's west side. "We even had TV cameras out here filming it." He is still somewhat bewildered by the recent criticism and said he was "really surprised and disappointed" that Kouchi and the County Council staff had not contacted the seed companies before introducing the resolution and putting local managers on the spot.

"Most of us who work here are people who grew up on farms. We know more about getting a crop out than standing up in front of a group giving information. Our staff here is not the PR people."

G. Douglas Tiffany, research scientist with Pioneer, said residents' concern over the EPA investigation and public testimony supporting the labeling resolution convinced him that the industry needs "to communicate more with our neighbors. We have to educate people about its safety and its importance. We want to respect our neighbors, but we have to approach this whole issue with the facts, not myths and fears. There are some ideological differences that shouldn't enter into the dialog."

One of the problems, however, is that hard, cold, undisputed facts are tough to come by when it comes to genetic engineering. While biotech industry researchers generally contend that transgenic crops can produce higher yields and better quality food while reducing production costs and pesticide use in some crops, particularly cotton, other scientists and public interest groups discount many of those claims - and strenuously raise scenarios of unpredictable, unanticipated side-effects.

A major topic of dispute is pollen drift, or unintended cross-pollination of GMOs with wild and cultivated plants. This issue, which is still being studied, raises the specter of transgenic crops inadvertantly producing unpredictable weed variants and contaminating native plants. The biotechnology industry sees it as a relatively minor threat, while opponents point to troubling new research, such as an Ohio State University study published last August in New Scientist that shows "weeds become stronger and fitter by cross-breeding with genetically engineered crops," and other scientific findings published last summer in a peer-review publication that documents the transfer of Round-Up-resistant genes from GMO food crops into invasive weeds.

"There are no native species in Hawai'i that corn, sunflower or soybeans will cross-pollinate with," asserted Pioneer's Tiffany. He noted that seed companies are unlikely to be the cause of such drift anyway, because they are required to employ strict containment practices, such as bagging tassels in new experiments and planting border crops around their test fields, which are generally isolated from commercial farms, to serve as pollen traps. "Pollen has a very short life. As soon as it gets wet it explodes. And if it doesn't land on a corn silk, there is no transfer of genetic material."

Journalist and attorney Claire Cummings, who recently gave a series of talks in Hawai'i on transgenics, cited a now-controversial study that showed pollen from GMO corn grown in the Midwest took just six years to migrate to southern Mexico and mix with heirloom corn crops there, thus contaminating those ancient genetic strains. "These are living organisms," she warned. "Once they are released into the environment they can't be controlled or recalled, and they reproduce."

Some observers are concerned that pollen from deregulated GMO crops, which can be grown by anyone, could drift into and contaminate backyard gardens and organic farms producing the same type of crops nearby, a scenario that industry officials acknowledge is definitely possible, particularly with a popular and pollen-heavy crop like corn. "There are no regulations to prevent that," Tiffany said.

"Growers in an area have to get together and cooperate" if some want to plant GMO seed and others don't.

Organics vs. transgenics

What is clear is that genetically engineered agriculture is primarily an American thing, with the United States growing some 68 percent of the crops; Argentina grows 22 percent, Canada 6 percent and China 3 percent. Other nations have been far more cautious about the technology; both Japan and the European Union restrict imports.

It's also acknowledged by researchers and opponents alike that genetically engineered crops have arisen in part to counter harmful farming practices espoused during the "green revolution," which gave rise to monoculture, increased mechanized farming and greater use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

And that leads straight to the basic, organic-vs.-scientific, ideological fault line that Tiffany said he would prefer to see removed from debates about transgenic crops. Many of those who oppose transgenics favor instead sustainable and organic agriculture.

"We could be the organic seed bank for the world," talk show host Van de Veer argued, "or the salad bowl for the islands, with no GMOs, and it doesn't necessarily have to be organic." Van de Veer quit his radio show late last year to travel in Nepal.

"If we do, we'll have a clean environment and create jobs. If we choose the unknown (GMOs), someone, somewhere, and probably not here,

will make a profit."

"It all comes down to what kind of future do we want for Hawai'i's agriculture," says Kaua'i activist Rosa Silver, who says she was very active in the GMO issue until it began to consume her and make her feel unwell.

"We are on the road to destroying ourselves. GMOs are just an extension of other destructive farming practices. We need to come up with a plan for government, and let's make it something green and beautiful and organic."

At the least, critics say, the industry should be required to divulge the location of its test plots and the nature of their experiments, a move that seed companies resist in order to protect proprietary information in a competitive market and because they believe existing regulations are adequate.

HIGEAN also has been pushing the state to spend more research money on sustainable agriculture, Greenaway reported. It's a stance that HOFA fully supports. HOFA's policy statement declares "the life of the land and a sustainable economy will both improve without the implementation of genetic engineering, provided that more research and education are put forth for organic, ecologically sustainable land-care practices."

"Organic has its place, and we respect that," Tiffany said, noting that Pioneer still grows and sells non-GMO seed for those who prefer it.

God's design

"Some people believe we should go back to subsistence farming," said Syngenta's McMahon. "And that would be fine, if we had a smaller population. Right now, we have enough food to feed people, the problem is distribution. But will we be able to say that in 35, 50 or 100 years? This is an opportunity to come up with some new ways to feed people, perhaps without clearing additional land."

Gregory O. Edmeades, a research fellow with Pioneer, generalized that all agriculture in Africa is organic and people there are starving.

"Their output is not high enough to meet their needs," he said. "I don't think we can deal with the question of six billion people with that system. It's almost like organic farming is an anachronism at this point. The green revolution in the '60s did have some negative effects, but there are about 100 million people alive now who wouldn't be otherwise, and there's a moral issue there, too. We can refine those old systems to make them more productive, but at the end of the day, we need new technology."

Opponents, however, question whether this new technology is safe.

"Once you start investigating this, it's sort of like an insanity," Silver said. She calls the public "guinea pigs" for corporate greed.

"It's like a huge nightmare to me. I liken it to nuclear energy."

Industry officials argue that the technology is safe and that it has been carefully scrutinized and regulated by federal agencies.

"What they're afraid of is not even close to what's occurring," McMahon said. He acknowledged that any new technology has some potential for long-term risks, "but that's true of many things and there are products out that we know are hazardous, and they're still on the market."

Tiffany contends that mankind has been improving crop plants and moving genes around for thousands of years, and that the technologies of GMO are just a new way of doing that.

"We're just using a tool to improve crop species," he reassures. "Wheat is a mixture of three different species. It's a wide cross, but you would be hard-pressed to do it naturally."

"The present state of knowledge in this field is akin to the car industry in the 1900s," Edmeades said. "If we keep the right checks and balances in place, the level of knowledge and understanding will increase so rapidly, we will still be in a good, safe place. The research that we went into is soundly based science, not some evil whim of a corporate interest."

But critics object to the technology's near total control by corporations and charge the situation could spell doom for independent farmers. The companies own the patented seed. Farmers who want to use the seeds must sign legal agreements that prohibit them from sharing the seeds. They also are barred from the age-old practice of collecting seeds from mature crops to use for planting the next season's crop. Instead, they must buy new seed each planting season. Some of the seeds are even engineered with so-called "terminator genes" that prevent them from producing viable seeds that might be replanted.

Kona coffee farmer and HIGEAN member Nancy Redfeather, in a Big Island newspaper guest editorial, wrote, "Large multi-national agribusiness corporations wish to patent the genes of food products and with these intellectual property rights the small farmer and gardener will eventually give up their right to grow what they choose, save their own seed and be independent. ...This picture does not contribute to locally based future food security. Industrial scale, pesticide-reliant agriculture is not the only way to feed the world."

Redfeather is not alone in her concern that GMO crops will soon dominate the global farming scene, undermining traditional agricultural practices in developing nations, genetically and commercially overwhelming heirloom seeds that have been grown for centuries and ultimately reducing biodiversity. "I've seen reports that show in 10 years, there will be no pure corn left in the world," Silver said. "How can we not be scared of that?"

Silver and others remain unconvinced that GMOs are safe for human and animal consumption, saying they simply have not been tested for long-term effects. In 1992, under the presidency of George Bush the elder, the Food and Drug Administration ruled that GMO food products were "substantially equivalent" to conventionally grown foods and thus were not subject to health and safety testing, environmental assessment or labeling. "This is a really big issue," said Greenaway. "But I'm not sure how many people are really interested in this aspect of it, because they don't care what they put in their mouths, anyway."

Industry officials say the federal government requires transgenic varieties to be tested for nutritional content and potential allergenicity, and that feeding trials also have been done on animals.

"DuPont is fanatic about safety," Tiffany said. "We're confident we have a very safe product."

"If there's evidence it's harmful, we'd like to see it, too, as we feed it to our families," adds Pioneer's Bruce Coulombe.

While many of the debates focus on the science of GMOs, questioning how thoroughly crops have been tested for risks to humans and the environment, a moral component to the debate also has emerged - internationally and locally.

"Just because we have discovered how to mate unlike species at the molecular level or smuggle genes from one organism to another, doesn't mean we should," Redfeather wrote in her editorial. "Nature has developed extensive barriers to prevent these intrusions. Flounder crossed with tomatoes or human herpes antibodies spliced into corn are mating scenes rarely if ever witnessed."

For Silver, delving into the GMO issue has caused her to deeply question her faith and ponder such weighty questions as "What is man's role in the world? What is God's creation, and do we have a right to tamper with it? Do we respect life? Do we feel connected to anything? Are we the rulers? Do you trust that God is watching and protecting, that all things have some good, that everything serves a purpose and there is a reason for everything?

"In Australia and New Zealand, Silver said, some ministers have begun speaking out against genetic engineering, especially transferring genes across species. "They see it as an attack on God, and that's one of the things I see, too. It's sick, and it's indicative of what our culture has turned into."

January 31, 2003

Honolulu Weekly,

Rate this article: 
No votes yet

Add new comment