Debate on genetically modified crops comes to Kaua’i

LIHU’E – Are genetically modified crops the answer to world hunger, lack of enough suitable cropland and other international issues, or a catastrophic disaster waiting to happen?

Industries growing corn for seed, sunflowers and other experimental crops, from Koloa to Kekaha, mainly Syngenta Seeds, Inc. (formerly Northrup King) and Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., contend what they’re growing and how they’re growing it is safe for the environment and the people of Kaua’i.

Not everyone agrees.

“It’s a massive, open-air experiment that we’re living in,” and has potentially disastrous implications for both Kaua’i and the state, said Claire Hope Cummings of Pacifica, Calif., an attorney and journalist specializing in stories about food and farming.

She spoke about the “Impacts of GMOs in Hawai’i” to over 100 people recently at the Queen Lili’uokalani Children’s Center here. The talk was sponsored in part by KAHEA, an environmental activist group based in Honolulu.

GMOs are genetically modified organisms, and are growing in over 3,000 test fields across the state, according to the Public Interest Research Group.

The president of Syngenta, Heinz Imhof, says that science and technology are essential to sustainable agriculture.

“The gigantic strides made in agriculture over the past four decades must rank as one of the most striking accomplishments in human history,” he said.

Biotechnology has led to development of better-tasting, more-nutritious foods; foods with nutrients that reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and other diseases; foods lower in fatty acids and saturated fat; crops that produce their own natural protection from insects and diseases; and crops that grow well in extreme conditions such as heat, and excessively wet or dry soils, according to a Syngenta spokeswoman.

The companies growing GMOs on Kaua’i routinely dole out lots of misinformation, mythology, and public-relations speak, claimed Cummings, who is concerned that GMOs will contaminate Hawai’i’s biodiversity and adversely affect its natural and cultural heritage.

“This is a political issue,” because it impacts the quality of life and vision for the future of the island, she said.

The establishment of GMO test fields on Kaua’i and in Hawai’i has been “characterized as another invasion of Hawai’i,” and people are being told that it’s good for the economy, she said.

And that establishment brings with it an amazing resemblance to what residents were told when Dole pineapple operations were first proposed. Back then, it was, “What’s good for Dole is good for Hawai’i,” she said.

Now, it’s “What’s good for Dow is good for Hawai’i.”

“I don’t think it’s good,” for the economy, the environment, human health, or the community, she said.

Those working the fields from the South Shore to the Westside say they wouldn’t be working with GMOs (they prefer to refer to them as “transgenics”) if they felt the crops could be dangerous to either humans or the environment.

Kevin McMahon, Syngenta Seeds, Inc. location manager, from his Kekaha office, said he feels the activities of his company are safe for the land, people and other living things.

“I’ve worked around some of these genetically modified plants in the field for 12 years, and I have not observed any differences” either in himself or any of his co-workers, or the fields, he said.

Humans already share genes with chimpanzees and other organisms, but in Syngenta fields there is nothing being grown that contains human genes, he said.

Syngenta is growing corn, soybeans and some cotton in Westside fields, with traits including insect and herbicide resistance.

Many of the GMOs grown by Syngenta are deregulated, or have been approved by the federal government as safe for use as food for animals and humans, he said.

Strict federal guidelines are in place for regulated GMOs, which must have federal permits

“We follow the protocol as set up by the company working with USDA, EPA, all the different government regulations involved in that,” he said.

About contentions that there are biological solutions to weed and insect problems, McMahon responded, “If there’s ones that are out there, we would have found most all of those by now.”

The naturally occurring solutions that others claim are out there haven’t been identified through years of traditional plant breeding, he said.

Scientists both with the federal government and Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc. carefully regulate GMOs to ensure their safety, said Greg Edmeades, a research fellow at Pioneer’s Waimea facility.

“We’re not going to run the risk at all for our own employees or for our customers, as well as the island itself, if we even think that we have any indication (that any crops or organisms) will be unsafe,” he said.

“We have full confidence in the safety of what we work with,” which includes corn, soybean and sunflowers from Koloa to Kekaha. Most of the crops are bred with insect and herbicide resistance, though most of the corn work involves traditional farming methods, and not transgenic material, he said.

“We see no threat to Hawai’i’s fragile ecosystem from any of the transgenic research that we’re conducting on-island, both because we’re being absolutely careful in the way we conduct that research, but also there are no relatives of the species we work with here that pollen that could possibly blow from our plots could intercross with and cause difficulties.

“And we’ve been quite careful to check on that with the crops that Pioneer is working on in Kaua’i,” he said.

“Fears expressed have not been realized,” said Doyle Karr, a Pioneer spokesman on the Mainland. The questions being asked by those opposed to GMOs in Hawai’i were asked by Pioneer internally before the company even sought any governmental approvals, Karr said.

Advances in transgenic crops on the Mainland have led to reduced spraying of herbicides, insecticides that take out only harmful pests while leaving beneficial species alone, increased diversity of wildlife around farm fields, less erosion and soil loss, and less need to till fields to reduce weeds, which means less use of fossil fuels for farm vehicles, Edmeades said.

“There were a number of facts that many of us would have liked to have contested,” said Edmeades, referring to Cummings’ presentation.

“They were, in our view, information that was taken somewhat out of context, interpreted in a different way than most scientists would interpret it,” said Edmeades, who attended the Cummings meeting.

“We had a lot of questions, and a lot of queries about the conclusions that she drew,” he said. “There were some biological errors that she made there that were misleading, I think, for the general audience.”

Pioneer has been on Kaua’i for 34 years, and in existence as a company for 75 years.

Lessons learned in Mexico apply here, Cummings said, namely that in the southern Mexico area known as “the cradle of corn,” GMO corn in six years has migrated to this area from the U.S. Midwest, contaminating those fields in Mexico.

There are three types of GMOs being grown in Hawai’i, she said: Crops for seed; something she calls “pharming,” or growing crops imbedded with certain pharmaceutical genes that are later harvested for the drugs they contain; and experimental crops.

Somewhere in Hawai’i, GMO crops containing human genes are growing, Cummings contends. Pioneer and Syngenta representatives said no such organisms are in the ground on Kaua’i.

An example of a GMO crop is frost-resistant strawberries, developed by using a gene designed to keep an arctic flounder from freezing to death in the cold waters where it lives.

The gene is spliced into strawberry plants to make the strawberries resistant to frost, Cummings said.

England and other countries banned GMOs because of fears that foods made with genes aimed at antibiotic resistance, for example, might make those who eat the foods resistant to antibiotics as well, she said.

Other countries require detailed labeling of foods containing GMOs. The United States has no such law or policy, Cummings noted.

And insurance companies won’t dare insure companies planting GMOs, because of liability issues that haven’t yet surfaced, she continued.

While the industry continues to contend that there is no difference between a normal carrot and GMO carrot, the truth, Cummings said, is that they behave differently in the environment, cross-pollinate with weeds and other plants at a rate 20 times higher than normal plants, and are by design invasive, extremely aggressive and extremely promiscuous.

The GMOs are, she said, “unpredictable, unstable and unsteady.”

Yet the industry continues to operate under the premise that GMO crops and products are “substantially equivalent” to non-GMO materials, she said.

Part of the problem is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture issues the permits for GMO test fields, and as a result of an agreement Cummings said the big companies made with former Pres. George Bush when he was in office, the permits allow companies to protect as proprietary information what’s being grown, and where.

There have been no human- or animal-health studies done to gauge potential impacts of the products, she continued. Yet female pigs fed with one GMO experienced miscarriages, then returned to normal, successful birth cycles once they weren’t given the GMO feed anymore, she said.

People are led to believe that the federal Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and USDA exist to protect people and the environment, she said.

“I’m here to tell you that your interests are not being protected.” Most regulation is voluntary, with enough of a “regulatory sheen” to make the public feel like their interests are being protected, she said.

Richard M. Manshardt, horticulturist with the University of Hawaii Department of Tropical Plant & Soil Science, attended Cummings’ talk on O’ahu, and says in some cases she misrepresented evidence and facts regarding GMOs.

“All the information that has been divulged and produced over the last eight years indicates that there is nothing hazardous about the products that are on the market,” he said.

“I think she’s misrepresenting the evidence, misrepresenting the facts. Her emphasis has been to suggest that there is a hazard here, when in fact the evidence from the commercialized products indicates that there isn’t any,” said Manshardt.

“And by that I mean that they are commercialized, they have been deregulated by the three federal agencies, and there’s no record of anybody suffering any harm,” he added.

Manshardt at UH has been working on a papaya plant that is less susceptible to the ring-spot virus that has decimated the Big Island crop. That papaya is being marketed and sold here and on the Mainland, and amounts to half the production in the state, he said.

On Kaua’i, only two types of genetically modified papaya are deregulated, with the rest of the organisms in the field-trial stage, he said.

The bottom line, Manshardt said, is that “If there were any suspicion or evidence in a theoretical sense or from past experience, that these trials were going to be hazardous, I don’t think they’d be out there.”

While 95 percent of all Americans surveyed say they want labeling of products containing GMOs on store shelves, the industry has fought against such disclosure, Cummings said.

Those who want to get involved can boycott places that sell GMO foods, buy locally and organically where ever possible, learn more about the GMO movement through books like “Fast Food Nation” and “Food Politics,” and use dollars and propensities (to march, vote, etc.) to make change, she said.

A boycott of McDonald’s after it was learned that GMO potatoes went into its French fries led that corporation to end the practice of buying and using GMO potatoes, she noted.

“We have to have a regime change. Science is on our side,” she added.

Getting together in small groups to talk about the situation is crucial, too, she said.

“This is all about cutting you off,” from the land, from food, and from each other, she said.

“The claims of the industry are just not true. Your concerns are really the most important thing here,” said Cummings.

North Dakota, South Dakota and Pennsylvania have banned corporate farmers, but to date no jurisdictions have been successful in implementing bans on GMOs.

What’s needed, she continued, are right-to-know and right-to-sue laws, and liability legislation.

Hawai’i among all the states, while it has the highest number of field test sites (over 3,200) in the country, also has the best shot of ridding itself of GMOs, Cummings feels.

Staff Writer Paul C. Curtis can be reached at mailto:pcurtis@pulitzer.net or 245-3681 (ext. 224).

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