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The GMO Debate, Food For Thought - Part 1

By Lara Yamada
Published On: Feb 24 2012 12:50:41 AM HST
Updated On: Feb 24 2012 06:05:58 AM HST

We're talking about GMOs or Genetically Modified Organisms. And a big part of how this industry is developing is happening right here in Hawaii.

HONOLULU -

GMOs. GE. Transgenic.

"I think a lot of people actually don't even know what that means," said Maui Councilmember Elle Cochran.

Genetic Engineering has entered our food chain in a big way.

In 2012, more than half of the crops grown in the United States are GMOs.

According to the USDA, 88% of all corn crops, 90% of cotton crops, and 94% of soybean crops are GMO crops.

In 2010, U.S. farmers planted 165 million acres of GMO crops.

In fact, the U.S. uses more genetically modified seeds than any other country in the world.

"This is the kind of corn we work with here," said Fred Perlak, head of operations for Monsanto Hawaii, as he showed reporter Lara Yamada ears of corn in a Kunia field.

"This is an important location for our worldwide operations. What we do here is build new varieties of corn and soybean," Perlak said.

"You actually take a bag and put it over the tassel, knock the pollen off, then take the bag and pour the pollen on top of the silts and then put another bag on so no additional pollen will come on," he said.

"And you do that how many times over?" said Yamada.

"500,000 times on this farm alone in one year," he said.

"It's all about research and development here in the state," said Cochran.

Cochran is one of many Hawaii lawmakers keeping a close eye on what's happening in Hawaii.

"What they create on Maui is what they're sending out worldwide. It's the top breed, the cream of the crop, so to speak," she said.

Cochran is concerned about GMO crops statewide.

The Hawaii State Association of Counties presents a package to lawmakers every session.

Cochran championed a provision to support GMO labeling.

All counties approved it, except for Oahu, so that provision was dropped.

"We had hours and hours of testimony, really heart-felt testimony," she said.

According to the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, Monsanto is just one of five major companies planted here in the islands.

There's also Syngenta, Dow AgroSciences, BASF, and Pioneer – which is owned by DuPont.

They are companies that own or lease 25,000 acres on Oahu, Kauai, Maui and Molokai, and they all test and grow genetically modified seeds.

Perlak says it’s to add value to farmer's crops.

"We’re talking about natural disease resistance, better root growth, longer stalks," he said, giving a few examples.

"We probably want to introduce something like 100 new varieties on an annual basis at Monsanto. To get those 100 varieties, we start with 100s of thousands," he said.

In genetic engineering, scientists insert new traits from a similar breed, or something completely different, right into the DNA of a plant or animal - and the reasons for doing it are endless:

  • Rainbow Papaya: genetically modified to resist the ring spot virus.
  • Soybeans: resistant to pesticides.
  • Corn: genetically modified to handle drought.
  • Rice: with added vitamins.

And that's just the beginning:

  • Strawberries with flounder genes to resist frost.
  • Goats with spider genes to produce milk with silk fibers.
  • Pig's noses that glow in the dark - thanks to a jellyfish gene.

The list goes on: plants and animals that grow faster, produce more, eat less, and leave less waste, but also make infection-fighting drugs, grow organs for human transplant, and treat chronic diseases.

"These varieties will help increase the efficiency and productivity of farmers around the world, which has implications for all of us," said Perlak.

"You have people who are really up in arms," said Cochran.

She has not given up.

She visited the capitol to keep the issue of what to do about GMOs on lawmakers' plates.

And it’s an issue that's increasingly hard to ignore.

"I'm digging more into it and learning and studying what it's about," she said.

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