Hawai’i’s curious relationship with GE

posted in: Science | 5

Hawai’i is a remote archipelago of islands with a declining sugar industry. The new expanses of open acreage are now being filled with GE crop trials, and controversy.

PRSV-Resistant Papaya
PRSV-Resistant Papaya

The University of Hawai’i produced the first GE Papaya resistant to Papaya Ringspot Virus, which grows there today (and even surrounds and protects organic plots of Papaya), and is currently investigating several other crops and their potential for improvement. Those efforts have been put in jeopardy recently as the council of the big island of Hawai’i banned the growing of GE taro and coffee with no allowance for continued academic research. Mayor Kim vetoed the ban, which was overturned by the council.

In the debate over genetic engineering in Hawai’i, it is interesting to see anti-GE groups claim that farmers do not want the technology. First, it is the farmers who ultimately decide what to grow on their farms, and the mere fact that they are choosing to grow it wherever it is legal to do so is a testament to the fact that many actively do want to grow it.

Another interesting point of contention is whether or not farmers will be helped or harmed by GE crops. In what I have read of the Hawai’ian debates, few actually depended upon the argument that GE crops aren’t tested enough for human consumption. It has been brought up, but the argument hasn’t held much weight because GE crops have been tested more thoroughly than any other new crop varieties, and there hasn’t been a single confirmed case of anyone being harmed by it. And maybe people are tired of hearing that argument, too.

Instead, one of the primary arguments being advanced against allowing it to be grown in any locale is how people outside that area will treat the food being grown from that region. ‘Sure it may be safe and the farmers may want to grow it, but if people on the mainland don’t want to buy GE coffee, our market will suffer if they decide to stop buying from us.’ This is a more indirect argument, depending on the perceived attitudes of coffee buyers.

The counter-argument from the farmers that do not want the GE coffee banned is that when disaster strikes, like with Papaya Ringspot Virus, they are worried that there will not be a ready solution for the calamity, and they won’t even have coffee to sell – to even possibly be rejected by consumers.

PRSV-resistant papaya is a good example of this issue. Without this genetically engineered trait, there would be virtually no Hawai’ian Papaya industry, even organic papaya would be failing. So in the sense of protecting the crop, genetic engineering saved the Hawai’ian papaya. But some markets have rejected the GE papaya, and anti-GE groups (Greenpeace, et al) have claimed that genetic engineering is instead hurting the farmers.

But it is not. The opposition to GE crops on the end of the importers is what is hurting those farmers, but rather than address the role of those people rejecting what the farmers choose to grow (or are compelled to grow in order to escape a devastating disease), the blame is put on the technology itself. But you have to keep in mind that the groups making this mistake are biased against interpreting it this way because they are opposed to genetic engineering, and blaming GE meshes well with their goal of fomenting opposition to GE crops amongst consumers.

As I mentioned above, Hawai’i has become a site for a wide range of field trials for GE crops. University research projects elsewhere will also grow their winter nurseries in Hawai’i to squeeze two rounds of selection in their breeding projects each year. The land rented out for these purposes has not only been good for the farmers who have been losing sugar cane acreage to cheaper sugar producers elsewhere, but it has also been good for GE crop developers who need somewhere remote so as to eliminate any possibility of cross-pollination with varieties being grown on farms.

But the language being used to describe this situation takes a whole different turn. In her new book Uncertain Peril, Claire Hope Cummings has called growing GE crops on Hawai’i a new form of colonialism – when the obviousness of mainland Americans determining what Hawai’ian farmers can grow escapes her analysis. The belief that gigantic biotech companies are trying to rule the world through Hawai’i is pervasive, and thus they have made the state a battleground to try to nip GE research in the bud.

Genetic engineering only benefits the companies that develop it, and can only destroy farmer’s livelihood, right?

But even Deborah Koons Garcia, who filmed the anti-GE documentary The Future of Food, after claiming that genetic engineering was not a benevolent technology (technologies are neutral IMHO), said in an interview on my show years ago that the GE Papaya project was indeed a benevolent project. Whoops! I got that one on tape.

So if this was about helping Hawai’ian farmers defend themselves against Monsanto and worried coffee consumers, why was there no provision to allow University GE research on the big island of Hawai’i? UH researchers can take heart in the fact that this ordinance only applies to GE coffee and Taro that is grown on the big island – other Hawai’ian islands are not affected by the ban.

In the case of Taro, a religious argument is being made against genetically engineering the crop. Folklore puts Taro in a position of reverence (hey, it’s a reliable source of food in tropical climates), and the argument goes that genetic engineering would be violating the sanctity of the plant. One obvious counter-argument (besides that it is based on myth) is that by protecting Taro against pests and disease is instead strengthening the plant  – and that allowing it to be destroyed is instead disrespectful to the holy root.

It also appears that GE crops are the new Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY). Hawaiian coffee growers, when and if a problem hits that can only be addressed by genetic engineering, will probably lobby to lift the ban and decide to grow biotech beans. But if you cut off the public research that is trying to address impending agricultural problems, will the remedy be available when you need it? I guess some who know they might grow it just want someone else to take the market risk for now.

This post was inspired by a new article in Scientific American titled Genetically Modified Hawaii, which is a pretty good read.

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:
Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.