The GMO Debate, Food For Thought - Part 2

By Lara Yamada
Published On: Feb 24 2012 12:56:41 AM HST
Updated On: Feb 24 2012 06:12:45 AM HST

The demand for GMOs has increased exponentially. But the dust has yet to settle on whether it's a safe and smart move for Hawaii.

HONOLULU -

Five major companies own or lease 25,000 acres on four islands, and the demand for GMOs has increased exponentially, but the dust has yet to settle on whether it's a safe and smart move for Hawaii.

“We have things like banana, papaya, mango, avocado, star fruit, dragon fruit, and breadfruit. Dadadadadadada!” sang farmer Al Santoro.

Farmer Al Santoro runs Poamoho Organic Produce, the largest certified organic operation on Oahu, with seven acres and more than 600 fruit trees in Waialua.

“Every one of my mangoes has our name it and it says certified organic,” he said.

Only minutes from his farm is Monsanto Hawaii, which has more than 2,000 acres growing mostly genetically modified corn and soybean seeds.

“They are the most tested, the most studied of new introductions of products that we have on earth,” said Fred Perlak, head of operations at Monsanto Hawaii.

But over the years, some studies have questioned the safety of GMOs.

  • Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln detected allergens from soybeans with Brazil nut genes.
  • Scientists at Purdue University blamed an insecticide used to treat GE crops for killing scores of bees in Indiana.
  • The Institute for Responsible Technology reports pesticides inserted into plants triggered allergic and flu-like symptoms in humans, and damaged mice intestines.
  • They also say 93 percent of pregnant women in Canada had the Bt-toxin pesticide in their blood.

"From a safety standpoint, a scientific standpoint it doesn't make sense," said Perlak.

The FDA says it has yet to find any studies proving, without a doubt, that GMOs are unsafe.

And the European Commission concluded last year: "Biotechnology, in particular GMOs, is not per se, more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies."

"We have a very strong and reliable regulatory system. It takes 10 years to get anything to market," said Alicia Maluafiti. She is the Executive Director for the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association.

She says companies are already required to label GMOs with known allergens or toxins.

"We need to do a better job of educating them, that they are just as healthy and safe and nutritious and any food," she said.

Right now, the world population sits at seven billion, and is expected to reach nine billion by 2050.

Global demand is skyrocketing for vitamin-enhanced foods, crops resistant to pests and the elements, or simply a papaya that’s free of the ring spot virus.

"Without transgenic papaya we wouldn't even have an organic papaya and papaya would be gone," said Maluafiti.

"I think it's a great science, but I think we have to evaluate everything based on the science behind it," said professor Hector Valenzuela, who is a crop extension specialist at the University of Hawaii.

He said genetic engineering has its place, but it's also taking away from what Hawaii needs most, which is focusing on foods people can grow and eat.

"Food security consists of communities being able to take care of themselves," he said.

"This corn is not directly meant for human consumption, but it is an important part of future human consumption, because these varieties will help increase the efficiency and productivity of farmers around the world," said Perlak.

Monsanto, Syngenta, Pioneer, and the like employ about 25 percent of the state's entire agricultural workforce.

That includes benefits, pensions, and education programs.

Monsanto just donated $500,000 to UH Manoa in scholarships.

The Hawaii Nature Conservancy received a $110,000 dollar grant.

It’s all money from Hawaii's $250 million dollar a year seed industry.

Valenzuela is working on different, non-genetically engineered ways to help farmers work with the land and develop stronger crops.

He calls it a "new science" to create another tool for a 21st century agriculture industry, that’s still working to build what's best for Hawaii.

"From my perspective we have taken our eyes off that target," he said.

"It's a difficult issue. I think the majority of people, like most issues, probably need to learn a little bit more about the foods that they are eating," said Maluafiti.

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