Editorial for Sunday — October 19, 2003

• Biotech at Waimea


Biotech at Waimea

Biotechnology is a hot item in Hawai‘i. From the perspective of economists this cutting-edge plant technology world is a growing, major source of income for Hawai‘i. From the viewpoint of some environmentalists biotechnology is a threat to our food supply.

The issue came to a head earlier this year when the Environmental Protection Agency fined Pioneer Hi-Bred $72,000 for allegedly allowing genetically-modified seed corn to be grown too close to non-biotech crops in a field on the Makaweli side of the Waimea River. Pioneer’s Kaua‘i research center is located in this area and the biotech crop was seed corn.

Anti-biotech groups have used the fine as an example of their theory that biotech is a danger to the natural plant world that is unaltered by scientists.

A final comment on the issue was released Friday on the Web site of the USDA’s Animal and Health Plant Inspection Service and shows the cause behind the fine may have been blown out of proportion.

The conclusion by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service shows that some 12 leaf samples showed signs of cross contamination with the biotech seed corn plants, or about one plant out of 28,000. The conclusion was that Pioneer Hi-Bred didn’t violate the terms of the APHIS permit that allows the cultivation of the biotech seed corn at Waimea.

While the conclusion clears Pioneer of any wrongdoing in regards to federal regulations in this case, the high profile of the fine shows it is going to take years, if not decades, for biotech to become a thoroughly accepted form of agriculture.

The debate resulting from the fine between the growers and the critics of biotech have brought up good points to make regarding the danger that altered crops might do to our food supply. However, some critics have gone too far in portraying biotech as an out and out evil.

Along with the profit motives of their corporate owners, Pioneer and other seed corn companies doing research and seed corn hybrid growing on Kaua‘i have a goal of providing more food to the world’s poor through producing seeds that will have built-in qualities that keep away damaging bugs and plant diseases.

The fine also showed that questions about the safety of biotech seeds and crops being safe have answers from both sides. The biotech companies are going to considerable expense and effort to answer these questions, and so far the dangers expressed having come to pass. The critics of biotech are well known for protesting against this technology and producing volumes on its dangers; some European nations have banned biotech crop raising.

What should Kaua‘i do on this issue?

Federal agencies are carefully monitoring biotech growers like Pioneer and they are allowing work with seed corn and other crops to go forward. The promise of this industry is great both in food production terms and in the boost to the economy of rural areas of Kaua‘i and Hawai‘i as a whole.

The watchdog groups that are against this type of agriculture have brought up some concerns that need to be addressed, and are being addressed, by the growers and the government. If solid evidence of their criticisms can be shown the federal government should intervene. However, biotech is here and becoming a major segment of the multi-billion dollar U.S. ag industry. Kaua‘i needs such industries to replace our now-closed sugar cane plantations.

Trust and truth are the two virtues needed in this triangle of federal regulators, corporate growers and environmentalist critiques, and will result in the correct answer to how to handle biotech on Kaua‘i.

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