Cover Story


A seed of doubt

With thousands of acres of farmland across the Islands already devoted to genetically modified seeds, there are few signs that Hawai‘i is ready to get serious about regulation.

Ask folks to name Hawaii’s most valuable farm crop and they’ll likely say sugar or pineapple, maybe hazard a guess at macadamia nuts. Few will answer correctly–seeds–and even fewer will know that at least half that industry is devoted to growing genetically-modified organisms, or GMOs.

GMO is the catch phrase for any plant, animal, bacteria or virus with genetic material that has been altered through engineering. This is commonly done by forcing a gene, usually through use of a virus, bacteria or cell bombardment, from one organism into another to create an entirely new organism with desired traits, which can then be patented by its creator. Although born in a laboratory, genetically-engineered (GE) plants must be tested in the real world of soil and sun. Those that succeed are grown on a larger scale, producing seed for commercial farmers who are not legally allowed to save patented seed from their harvests, and so must buy new supplies each year.

Hawaii performs both functions, with land throughout the state being used to test and produce GE seed crops. Hailed by some as 21st century wonder plants that will feed a hungry, weather-beaten planet, and denounced by others as a craven corporate bid to control the global seed supply, GE crops are driving a fierce international debate over the future of farming.

And unbeknownst to most residents and visitors, Hawaii is in the thick of it.

Fruitful experimentation

In the past two decades, the Islands have hosted some 2,252 outdoor tests for experimental GE plants, more than any other place. Open-air field trials have been conducted on corn, soybeans, cotton, potatoes, wheat, alfalfa, beets, rice, safflower, sorghum, sunflowers, sugar cane, pineapple, dendrobium orchids, anthurium, coffee and papaya, among others. About 130 now are under way throughout the state.

Some of Hawaii’s outdoor tests—by companies such as Monsanto, ProdiGene, Garst Seed Co. and Hawaii Agriculture Research Center (HARC)—also involved biopharmaceuticals, which refers to plants genetically-engineered to produce medical supplies, drugs, vaccines and industrial chemicals. According to court documents, these trials involved experimental AIDS and hepatitis B vaccines; growth hormones; enzyme production from human genes; and aprotinin, a blood-clotting cow protein that is also an insect toxin. Information about where these tests were done remains blocked by a court order.

Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff, who brought a lawsuit seeking to halt these open-air biopharm trials in Hawaii until they could be assessed for environmental and public health risks, said the crops reportedly were harvested while the case was in litigation and it does not appear that any biopharms have been planted since. He and his staff monitor a Virginia Tech website ([www.isb.vt.edu]) that posts applications for field trial permits and their status. It usually, but not always, discloses the reason for the test, the crop involved and whether it is considered a biopharmaceutical. But while it names the state, it does not disclose the specific location, and details about biopharm tests are rarely included.

The industry maintains that such confidentiality is needed to protect their crops from vandalism and their trade secrets from competitors. The federal government supports that stance, and the state has followed its lead, with both the University of Hawaii and various state agencies consistently fighting legislation requiring disclosure of GE crop sites. In testimony presented in February in opposition to one such bill, which has since died, James R. Gaines, the University’s vice-president for research, cited concerns about “the threat to field research, vandalism and destruction of research crops as has happened during the development of the transgenic papaya.” Ted Liu, director of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, testified that, “over-regulation contributes to Hawaii’s anti-business image, jeopardizing the success of established businesses as well as the potential of attracting new investment to the State.”

The state Department of Agriculture also strongly opposed the bill, saying the permitting and regulating of field tests “is the province of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).” But some contend the federal regulatory process is tainted. Since the administration of George H.W. Bush, biotechnology industry officials have been tapped to fill key positions in the three agencies charged with regulating GMOs, and were at the helm of the USDA when it ruled that crops and foods containing GMOs are essentially the same as their conventional counterparts, and thus pose no danger to people or ecosystems. More recently, President Obama came under fire for choosing Tom Vilsack, who supports both GE and biopharm crops, as his Agriculture Secretary.

GMO opponents note that the USDA also has funded and conducted extensive biotech research, including the so-called “terminator technology” that prevents the second-year propagation of GE seed, thus ensuring that farmers must buy new seeds each season. Still others have criticized what they characterize as the USDA’s “rubber stamp” approach to field trial permit applications. According to a report published by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, the agency has rejected only 3.5 percent of the more than 40,000 permit applications submitted, and those were due to incomplete applications and paperwork errors.

“Experimental field trials of GE agricultural crops in Hawaii are conducted without adequate oversight or sometimes even the knowledge of where the trial is located,” said Nancy Redfeather, a Big Island coffee grower and member of Hawaii SEED, a statewide group of farmers, environmentalists, scientists, cultural leaders and others organized against GMO crops in Hawaii. Some Hawaii residents also have expressed concern about the chemicals—atrazine and heptachlor among them—used on GMO test plots around the state, saying they could be harming agricultural workers and those who live or work near the fields, as well as the environment.

“On Kauai, some of the testing is to develop herbicide-resistant crops that tolerate multiple chemicals,” said Jeri Di Pietro of GMO Free Kauai “So the research going on here includes spraying a cocktail of chemicals that will not kill the plants. The amount of spraying escalates as they look for the high dose tolerance level. This massive amount of chemical application is going on near our schools, coastline and bird sanctuaries. Very few studies have been done on how to mitigate contamination of soil and bacteria where genetically engineered crops have been grown.”

Seed companies have consistently defended their cultivation and chemical application practices as complying with federal regulations, and the Environmental Protection Agency has issued few citations. It fined Syngenta Seeds $17,550 last year for two pesticide-related violations, while in 2002 Pioneer Hi-Bred and Mycogen Seeds, a unit of Dow Agrosciences, agreed to each pay a fine of less than $10,000 after the EPA cited them for failing to meet isolation and containment requirements during field trials on Kauai and Molokai, respectively.

This is not a drill

But testing isn’t the only purpose that Hawaii fields serve. Agricultural lands throughout the state also are used to grow GE seed for commercial farmers, with much of the activity centered on Oahu, Molokai and Kauai. About half of the 4,000 acres in seed crops statewide are cultivated in GMOs, according to industry estimates. About 97 percent of it is “Roundup Ready” corn, which can withstand direct applications of Monsanto’s herbicide. GE seed crops that produce their own insecticides are also being grown.

Seed companies have been taking advantage of Hawaii’s year-round growing season since the mid-1970s. But with an annual value of just $20 million two decades ago, the seed industry was a big player in Islands agriculture. Now, it’s the star—and the only one that’s rising. With a record-high value of $146.3 million last season, the seed industry accounts for about a quarter of the state’s total farm revenues, eclipsing every other commodity. It’s also expanding rapidly, increasing 42 percent last year alone.

The steady growth is no accident. The state has been recruiting biotech businesses and investment since the mid-1990s, when former Gov. Ben Cayetano endorsed the industry as a clean, high-tech way to save agriculture and diversify the economy. Now all the major chemical and agribusiness companies involved in GMOs are established in Hawaii. These include Dow AgroScience, Syngenta and BASF, as well as Dupont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred International, the world’s largest seed company. The biggest local grower is Monsanto, which previously produced the toxins subpolychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) and dioxin and is now a global leader in GE seeds, with some 674 biotechnology patents.

Carol Okada, manager of the state DOA’s Plant Quarantine Branch, which oversees GMOs in Hawaii, was quoted in Scientific American magazine last year as saying the booming seed business is in the Islands to stay. “Even though it’s controversial here, the seed industry is now the No. 1 industry for us and it is very important in terms of the economy, dealing with invasive species and giving farmers choices.”

A state of denial

The state’s ongoing support for the industry doesn’t sit well with everyone.

“These biotech companies are receiving huge state and federal subsides and tax incentives to come here,” Di Pietro said. “Most of the seed company profits are realized out of state. Biotech companies use a large portion of our ag land and water, yet produce no food that we can eat. We experience little benefit and receive much environmental degradation that we will be left for us to mitigate.”

It’s unclear just how much degradation is associated with GE crops because neither the state nor federal governments required companies to conduct Environmental Impact Statements before growing them here. In the Earthjustice suit, federal Judge J. Michael Seabright found the USDA acted in “utter disregard” of the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Protection Act when it granted permits for the biopharm field tests before conducting environmental studies, Achitoff said.

“They’re environmentally anything but benign,” Achitoff said, noting that GE crops have been shown to contaminate conventional and organic crops, usually through the unintentional mixing of commercial seed. In Hawaii, birds are also thought to have played a role in spreading the seeds of the Rainbow papaya, which was genetically engineered to resist the ringspot virus. Its genetic traits have been found in both the fruit and seed of traditional varieties, prompting an outcry from health-conscious consumers and organic farmers, who could lose their certification if their crops contain GMOs.

Both organic and conventional farmers face another peril from crop contamination. Monsanto is especially aggressive in enforcing its patents, Achitoff said, and has investigated and/or sued thousands of American and Canadian farmers for saving seeds with its patented GMO traits. The company has employed private investigators who secretly videotape and photograph farmers, infiltrate community meetings and gather information from informants about farming activities, according to an article published in Vanity Fair last year. As a result, Achitoff said, some farmers have paid huge fines to Monsanto, even though they were growing the crops inadvertently.

Herbicide-resistant varieties of soybean and corn, which represent the bulk of GE crops now being grown, present another environmental concern, Achitoff said. Their cultivation has given rise to herbicide-resistant “super weeds” that require stronger chemicals for eradication, and studies also have shown that farmers raising “Roundup Ready” crops use more herbicide than those growing conventional varieties.

Biotech researchers and seed companies, however, maintain that GE crops are safe because nothing has turned up to indicate otherwise. In testimony to the state Senate earlier this year, Richard Manshardt, a professor and plant geneticist at UH’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) asserted that “the biological impacts of current GE crops are not different or greater than those caused by production and distribution of conventional or organic crops. In the specific case of the virus-disease-resistant Hawaiian papayas with which I am personally familiar, no harmful environmental, agricultural or human health issues were found to be unique to GE papayas in seven years of testing during development or 10 years of production after commercial release.”

Achitoff, however, said the university researchers are pawns of the biotech industry. “Essentially what they want is the funding and it’s distorted their perspective on the safety of GMOs. We have people at CTAHR and the Farm Bureau who have been essentially bought by the biotech industry and they’re the ones who howl most loudly to the Legislature.”

Although Hawaii has been reluctant to control, or even scrutinize, the GE crops grown by its seed industry, Achitoff is seeing “a slow but steady trend away from the complete laissez-faire approach toward regulation” on the national level. With new studies showing a link between GE products and health problems, and consumers embracing healthier eating practices, “people will be looking to government and demanding a different approach in regard to GMO regulations,” he said. “I’m optimistic about it.”


Planted with good intentions

Despite claims that genetic engineering (GE) will lead to crops that can withstand drought, increase yields and boost nutrition, no GE plants with those specific traits have yet been developed for commercial cultivation.

Instead, most of the research has been devoted to producing crops that can withstand direct applications of herbicides, most notably Roundup, which is produced by biotechnology giant Monsanto. These herbicide-resistant varieties account for about 80 percent of the GE crops now being grown. The second most common crops are those that have been engineered to produce their own pesticides.

So far, the USDA has approved GE varieties of soybeans, corn (except blue corn, red corn and popcorn), canola, sugar beets, zucchini, crookneck squash and papaya. GE crops are used heavily as animal feed, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are common in products on supermarket shelves. (For a free shopping guide, visit [responsibletechnology.org].)

Another 100 GE crops are waiting in the wings, including virtually every fruit, vegetable and grain now commonly eaten. The biotech industry also has developed “terminator technology,” which prevents a plant from making seeds, but it has not yet been deployed.


Current legislation

Genetic engineering is a perennially hot topic in the Hawaii Legislature, and two bills that would ban the development, testing and propagation of genetically-modified taro in Hawaii are still alive.

Senate Bill 709 has been amended since its introduction to change its effective date to the year 2050, while House Bill 1663 has similar language, but a July 2009 effective date. Meanwhile, the fate of House Bill 1226 is uncertain. Known as the “pre-emption bill,” it would prohibit the state and county from banning or otherwise regulating activities related to genetically-modified plant organisms (GMOs).

Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff, who has litigated matters related to GMOs, said the bill is bucking national legal trends regarding pre-emption measures as contrary to the public interest.

“Essentially, it’s the state saying voluntarily, unilaterally, without any instruction from the federal government or Congress, we’re going to tie our hands and make it impossible to do anything about GMOs,” Achitoff said.

Although House Speaker Calvin Say has refused to disclose who asked him to introduce the bill, Achitoff said “there’s no doubt in my mind it came from the (biotech) industry and it’s consistent with similar legislation that’s been put forth by Monsanto and others in a number of other states.”

The bill passed the house and was referred to the Senate committee on energy and environment, where Chairman Mike Gabbard pronounced it “a very bad bill” and said he does not plan to schedule it for a hearing. While that would normally scuttle a measure, opponents are worried it might be revived using a technique called “gut and replace,” in which the contents of a live bill are stripped and replaced with a dead one, or by amending another bill, such as one of those related to GMO taro.