Guest Viewpoint for Wednesday — August 06, 2003

• Doing the biotech dance


Doing the biotech dance

By Dean Kleckner

People in the biotech industry sometimes joke that they need to go on a “fact-finding” mission – to Hawai‘i. After all, one of the great success stories in agricultural biotechnology is found in that great state. And who in their right mind would pass up a chance to go there?

Today, however, we don’t need to collect facts on the islands so much as distribute them. That’s because biotechnology has come under intense pressure from radical groups that don’t understand the first thing about science ? and don’t care.

They’re unfortunately starting to have an effect on public opinion, too. A growing number of Hawaiians seem to be wondering whether biotechnology is worth the fuss.

“The introduction of GM papaya has brought economic and environmental disasters to farmers in Hawai‘i in the past five years,” says Melanie Bondera of Greenpeace.

Anti-biotech crusaders are always telling us that we need to have special labels on genetically modified food. It’s no secret that I don’t agree with that proposal, but I do think we might usefully slap a label on Bondera’s ridiculous statement – Lie.

When most of us in the continental United States think about biotech plants, we think about staple crops such as cotton, corn, and soybeans. In Hawaii, however, one of the primary beneficiaries of agricultural technology has been the papaya industry.

In the 1990s, the ringspot virus was on it’s way to wiping out the Hawaiian papaya. Biotechnology offered a solutionna papaya plant that could resist this terrible infection, which devastates and destroys papayas the same way a rootworm infestation can annihilate a corn harvest.

Six years ago, the federal government approved GM papayas. These miracle plants were a godsend for papaya growers. As a Cornell University publication called “Agricultural Biotechnology: Informing the Dialogue” recently put it, “These biotech crops are credited with saving the Hawaiian papaya industry.”

Who do you trust more – the professional protestors at Greenpeace or the Ph.D. researchers employed by an Ivy League university?

It’s true that the Hawaiian papaya industry could be doing better, but its main problem comes from Japan’s reluctance to import GM papayas and their access to other cheap sources of papaya that have not been impacted by the ringspot virus so far. This must be understood as a problem of politics, not one of science or health. As with other GM foods, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with papayas that take advantage of what biotechnology has to offer. There isn’t a single scrap of evidence suggesting that these foods are anything but perfectly safe to eat. That’s why Greenpeace and its ilk must resort to lies and fear mongering.

Yet in Hawaii’s debate over biotechnology, much more than papayas are at stake. The islands are an ideal place for controlled field experiments. In fact, Hawai‘i is America’s leading state for agricultural biotechnology trials. Hundreds of them are going on at any one time ? faithfully, I might add, with appropriate federal and state oversight.

Carol Okada of Hawai‘i’s department of agriculture recently explained the motives of agriculture companies: “They like to come to Hawaii because we have no real seasons here, so they can do multicrops in a year.”

Hawai‘i’s leading industry, of course, is tourism. But Hawaiians can’t put a hotel on every parcel of land and expect to thrive – the state’s recent financial troubles, caused in part by a slowdown in tourism from Japan, testify to that fact. The Hawaiian economy must be more diversified if it’s going to flourish.

That’s why high-value agriculture is such an attractive option. Hawai‘i has a climate like no other in the United States, which means that its farmers can offer seed companies the kinds of research opportunities that are not available anywhere else. We’ll all be better off if this vital research takes place, but Hawaiians in particular can profit from it.

The world is embracing biotechnology? Society rarely, if ever, turns its back on scientific innovation and economic advancement. Hawaiians are in a unique and enviable position? They have the choice to provide cutting-edge leadership in this area or turn their backs and fall behind. The choice is theirs. Their decision impacts us all.

Dean Kleckner is chairman of Truth About Trade and Technology (http://www.truthabouttrade.org) is a national grassroots advocacy group based in Des Moines, IA formed by farmers in support of freer trade and advancements in biotechnology.

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