GMOs a Huge Subject of Debate
By Andy Gross
The Garden Island
August 7, 2005
Like it or not, the world of biotech, or genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), is upon us in a big way on Kaua'i.
The Hawaii Crop Improvement Association (HCIA) is an industry association representing members who produce seed crops valued at $60 million for 2004-2005, utilizing about 3,500 acres of the 8,000 available statewide to them.
A vast majority of these seed crops are corn, including Pioneer's station in Waimea.
Proponents of biotech say it is safe, tested, and a viable solution to create more food globally on less land. The most commonly grown biotech crops are corn, soybeans, cotton and canola.
Opponents argue it is a Pandora's box of potential future problems, and a huge economic question mark concerning who it actually benefits.
A United Nations study determined that workers in the world's agriculture industry produce 1.5 times as much food as they need to feed the world's entire population, and that starvation is a matter of entitlement or faulty distribution, said Will Fulton, of GMO- Free Kauai.
Fulton asked, "Why are we giving these corporations huge tax breaks to conduct open-field experiments on our islands?
"The state Department of Agriculture keeps telling us that this industry could be worth billions to the Hawaiian economy. They've been repeating that same sentence for over a decade. When are they going to show us some actual numbers?" Fulton wondered.
"It's the continuation of what's been going on for 10,000 years," said Dr. Harvey Glick, director of scientific affairs at Monsanto, a biotech giant, in defending biotech as just another evolutionary step.
The HCIA leaders contend that, among other things, biotech crops do not threaten beneficial insects or animals, and that biotech is not detrimental to organic farming. The HCIA officials also claim that biotechnology does not pose a threat to native Hawaiian taro and that biotech plants in Hawai'i cannot crosspollinate with indigenous species, so that they don't threaten the purity of native varieties.
And while HCIA representatives are touting GMOs as a safe, internationally-accepted, efficient way to create stronger, more-pest-resistant crops on less land, not even their supporters can be sure of what might happen in the future.
Glick said he could not say that genetically-modified, seed-related food that has been deemed safe today by leaders of regulatory agencies such as the federal Food and Drug Administration, the National Academy of Science, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, would necessarily be safe 20 years from now.
Or that, because of evolution, no one can say for sure there won't be modified insects and predators keeping pace with seed and crop changes.
"You can't know that," Glick admitted. "But the issue of food security is a huge one now anyway," he said.
Dr. Cindy Goldstein, manager of business and community outreach as well an as expert in crop genetics and development for Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., a subsidiary of Dupont, outlined biotech's strengths.
These include far greater crop yield on less land, less plowing, which is good for the environment, less use of pesticides, and locally, a rebound in the Hawai'i papaya industry due to virus resistance.
In 2003, Pioneer Hi-Bred International leaders came under investigation for their management of field trials of genetically-engineered corn in Hawai'i, including some Kaua'i fields, according to an April 24, 2003 article in The Des Moines Register.
Officials in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fined leaders of the Des Moines-based company $9,900 in 2002 for planting a test plot of biotech corn too close to a seed crop, and ordered the company leaders to test the seed corn for genetic contamination from the experimental plants. The EPA officials said that the testing turned up contamination from a second plot.
The EPA officials also announced at the time that Pioneer leaders had been fined $72,000 for failing to report test results within the required 24 hours.
EPA enforcement officer Amy Miller said there was no risk that the food supply was contaminated, because the plants that tested positive for the biotech gene were destroyed before pollination.
However, Greg Jaffe of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a private advocacy group, said the case raises questions about federal oversight of genetically-engineered crops.
Some big questions
"Why would growing pesticidal corn or herbicide-tolerant soybeans be important to the economy of remote oceanic islands?" Fulton asked.
Glick said this is the ninth year GMOs have been in use. He said an enormous amount of study and regulation preceded the actual introduction.
"They say GMOs are regulated and safe, at least for now, but they don't know about the long term," said Fulton.
"Regulation of genetically-engineered organisms is a myth. Supposedly, they are regulated by the USDA, the EPA and the FDA," Fulton said.
"But, in fact, genetically-engineered organisms were early on declared 'substantially equivalent' to the organisms they resemble, and therefore required no special regulation. The federal regulatory agencies do not do any independent testing of GMOs. They just take the word of the manufacturing corporations," he said.
As to whether GMOs should be labeled as such, Fulton said, "Independent testing of the health effects of GMOs on the population cannot be conducted if there is no way to collect data as to who is consuming GMOs or to what extent, which is the case since they're not labeled.
"You would think that if the GMO manufacturing corporations really believed that their products were so great that they would be leading the charge to have those products labeled. If they're so proud of it, why are they hiding it?" Fulton wondered.
"They say there is no danger in GMOs pollinating (or) affecting other crops because of genetic specificity. The science has not been done to prove this," he said, though biotech officials argue this is not the case.
Those opposed to GMOs argue that pollen is carried by wind, birds, bees, farm equipment, and humans over a range of distances. Spread of herbicide-resistant genes into weedy relatives has created "superweeds."
Fulton said, perhaps most dangerously, "what is happening in the critical world of soil microbiology as experimental biotech crop root exudates invade that world? We say, 'Do the science first.'"
While the HCIA leaders talk about increasing food for the world, Glick noted that much of what is produced is largely in developed countries, and is processed into oil or used more as feed for animals than food for humans.
He pointed out that a small farmer using GMOs to grow corn could benefit directly either from a larger crop for sustenance or for sale, but the most widely modified products are soybeans, corn and cotton.
According to various Web sites, GMOs result when specific genes from any organism (plant, animal, virus, bacteria) are put into the genetic sequence of another organism using recombinant DNA techniques.
Other terms used for this technology, or its products, are genetic engineering (GE), biotech, transgenic, and genetic modification (GM).
Wide support for biotech
According to several biotech web sites it's not just seed manufacturers who support crop biotechnology. Some 31 regulatory agencies in 17 countries plus prominent international scientific authorities in the U.S. and throughout the world have stated that biotech crops are as safe as conventional crops.
According to HCIA officials, in 2004, biotech crops were grown on more than 200 million acres in 17 countries, most of them in North and South America, Spain and parts of South Africa, China and Australia.
Among those authorities include the National Academy of Sciences, World Health Organization, European Commission, French Academy of Science, American Medical Association, United Nations Codex, and 3,400 scientists from around the world including many Nobel Prize winners.
Their conclusions reflect the results of thousands of biotech studies that have been conducted to date according to those sites.
How is it done
According to information from several GMO Web sites, both pro and con, gene manipulation is done in a laboratory.
A section of DNA, (the basic unit that determines an inherited trait), is isolated and forced into the DNA of another organism with the assistance of a viral vector, usually by coating tiny pellets of gold with DNA and literally firing these pellets at cells with a "gene gun."
Sexual reproduction is bypassed entirely, along with natural species barriers. Using recombinant DNA techniques, genes from jellyfish have been moved into pigs, and human genes into plants.
A cell that takes up the new genetic sequence is then cloned. An entire crop is created from just one cell.
According to sources with GMO-Free Maui, approximately 79 percent of GMO crops on the market have been modified to be resistant to herbicides, mostly Roundup, which is manufactured by Monsanto Corporation.
These crops, known as "Roundup-Ready," enable farmers to spray entire fields with herbicide without damage to their crop. Roundup-ready crops are responsible for huge increases in herbicide sales and applications.
Approximately 21 percent of GMO crops on the market have been engineered with an insecticide in every cell of the plant, including the harvested seeds used for food. Herbicide-resistant and insecticidal crops comprise nearly 100 percent of GMO crops on the market.
The GMO papaya is one of the few exceptions, and is resistant to the papaya ring-spot virus. However, GMO papaya trees are more susceptible to fungus diseases, and are routinely sprayed with toxic fungicides.
State support and forums
According to biotech leaders, the Hawai'i state Legislature, for example, has sanctioned biotech forums that the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation (HFBF) will conduct among farmers. These forums are designed to discuss production practices, common concerns, and interests as they relate to coexistence with conventional, organic, and biotech farming. Members of the state Legislature have asked officials in the state Department of Agriculture to submit a report on the HFBF forums 20 days prior to the start of their 2006 session.
At the same time, biotech forums are also being held by leaders in the University of Hawai'i's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (UH-CTAHR) and the Hawaii Institute of Public Affairs.
Questions and answers, from GMO-Free Maui's Web site
Internationally, there is consumer backlash against GMOs. While United States leaders are promoting biotech foods, officials of many other nations throughout the world have been enacting laws and policies that restrict or prohibit the growth and sale of GE crops. Many foreign countries require labeling of genetically-engineered foods and ingredients.
What is being gene-spliced into foods? Genes from bacteria (including those for antibiotic and herbicide resistance), viruses, insects, nuts, fish, and animals are presently spliced into common food crops. "Synthetic" genes are also used. More than 75 percent of processed foods in the U.S. contain genetically engineered ingredients due to widespread use of GMO canola, soy, corn, and cotton seed oil by U.S. food processors. Most Hawaiian papayas are transgenic, containing virus, antibiotic-resistant, and e coli bacteria genes.
How is health affected by genetically-engineered food? There are no requirements for long-term or independent testing of GMOs. A number of studies over the past decade indicate that genetically-engineered foods can pose serious risks to humans, domesticated animals, and wildlife. Human-health effects can include higher risks of toxicity, allergenicity, antibiotic resistance, immune-suppression, and cancer.
How can I choose to avoid eating genetically-engineered foods? No laws exist in the United States to allow labeling of GMO foods. Organic agriculture rules do not allow the cultivation of genetically-modified crops. Purchasing or growing organic food is an excellent way to avoid consuming biotech foods.
The use of genetic engineering in agriculture could lead to uncontrolled biological pollution, threatening numerous microbial, plant and animal species with extinction, and the potential contamination of non-genetically engineered life forms with novel and possibly hazardous genetic material.
Leaders in Denmark imposed a ban on glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, in 2003. It was discovered that the herbicide had been moving down through the soil and polluting the ground water at a rate five times higher than the level allowed. The European Union leaders also have a GMO-labeling requirement, though HCIA officials pointed out Spain is amongst the most enthusiastic supporters of biotech.
The HCIA is comprised of five member companies that produce commercial quantities of biotech seed: Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., Monsanto, DOW AgroSciences, and Syngenta, as well as the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center and 96 individuals.