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Hawaii is genetically engineered crop flash point

By Audrey McAvoy

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 02:34 p.m. HST, Apr 19, 2014

WAIALUA >> You can trace the genetic makeup of most corn grown in the U.S., and in many other places around the world, to Hawaii.

The tiny island state 2,500 miles from the nearest continent is so critical to the nation's modern corn-growing business that the industry's leading companies all have farms here, growing new varieties genetically engineered for desirable traits like insect and drought resistance.

But these same farms have become a flash point in a spreading debate over genetic engineering in agriculture.

Kauai and Hawaii counties have moved in the past several months to regulate genetically modified organisms and the pesticides the farms use. In Maui County, a group is collecting signatures for a potential ballot measure that would impose a temporary ban on the crops.

"People are very concerned, and it's my job as a council member to determine whether those concerns are valid and take steps to protect them," said Gary Hooser, a councilman in Kauai.

Hooser and the council passed a law last year, over the mayor's veto, to require large farms to create buffer zones around their crops and to disclose what pesticides they use. The law is set to take effect in August.

Seed companies with Kauai operations -- Syngenta, Pioneer, BASF and Agrigentics -- have sued the county to stop the law, saying they are already regulated by state and federal laws and there is no need for additional county rules.

"We don't plant anything that isn't permitted and approved through the proper regulatory agencies, be it the EPA, the FDA and UDSA," said Mark Phillipson, the head of Hawaii corporate affairs for Syngenta, referring to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Hawaii's origins as a critical node in corn production dates to the 1960s when James Brewbaker, a recently arrived researcher at the University of Hawaii, noticed he could plant three crops a year in Hawaii's warm climate instead of one as in most places on the mainland.

Around the same time, Pioneer Hi-Bred was trying to squeeze more research into a year by using greenhouses and farms in Florida. Brewbaker suggested researchers come to Hawaii.

Seed farms grew as research expanded and more land became available as Hawaii's sugar and pineapple plantations became less competitive in the global market and shut down.

As of 2012, the most recent data available, seed crops in Hawaii were worth $217 million, up from $140 million in 2007. About 95 percent of it is corn. In all, they exceed the value of the state's next several largest crops -- including sugarcane and macadamia nuts.

Developing a new seed variety takes about 10 to 12 growth cycles, said Phillipson. On the mainland, this could take 10 to 12 years. Being able to get three to four growth cycles a year in Hawaii dramatically shrinks the time it takes to bring a new product to market.

"It's getting your newest and best hybrids to market quickly," said Richard McCormack, who leads Hawaii operations for Pioneer Hi-Bred International, which is part of DuPont and has farms on Kauai and Oahu.

New genes -- such as those making corn resistant to drought or floods -- are inserted in a lab on the mainland.

Once federal authorities approve new varieties for planting, they're brought to Hawaii for two growth cycles or crop seasons to see how they perform in an actual field. The best ones are sent elsewhere for more growing.

Syngenta, for example, sends its best to fields in Missouri, Manitoba, Canada and Mexico to make sure the corn is able to thrive in the soil, wind conditions and temperatures of these various places, Phillipson said.

Today, about 90 percent of all corn grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered and has been developed partially in Hawaii in this way.

The discontent, however, has been simmering.

There has been little scientific evidence to prove that foods grown from engineered seeds are less safe than their conventional counterparts, but consumer concerns and fears persist -- not just in the islands but around the country and rest of the world.

In Hawaii, residents have also expressed concern about pesticides used in the growing of seed crops.

Hooser said he introduced the legislation to get good information that would allow the county to determine whether the seed companies' operations were having any negative effect on the health of Kauai's people and the environment.

Hawaii County, which covers the Big Island, later adopted a law banning the cultivation of genetically modified crops.

The county created an exemption, however, for papayas already grown on the Big Island that have been genetically engineered to resist a virus that nearly wiped out the fruit in years past. No seed companies currently have farms on the island, so they're not affected by the law.

In Maui County, a group called Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and the Aina Movement is gathering signatures for a ballot measure to impose the ban until seed companies complete environmental and public health studies find their practices to be safe.

Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences, a unit of Dow Chemical, both have farms in Maui County.

State Sen. Clarence Nishihara predicted the wrangling over genetically modified crops will continue, in Hawaii and around the country.

"There's no one side that's going to say, 'OK, we had enough. We've given up on the issue,' right?" said Nishihara, who chairs the state Senate's agriculture committee. "They'll keep fighting it. Isn't that the American way?"

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Wazdat wrote:
There has been little scientific evidence to prove that foods grown from engineered seeds are less safe than their conventional counterparts"

That is a LIE. Just look around at other countries that are banning this type of practice. The fact that they use Hawaii has a test tube is a JOKE and should be stopped.

on April 19,2014 | 07:57AM
livinginhawaii wrote:
I've done an internet search and cannot find such evidence you suggest motivates other countries. Can you please provide a url for a major public and private university's white paper that provides such evidence? Thank you in advance.
on April 19,2014 | 08:32AM
Meleana22 wrote:
@livinginhawaii -- Consult with the world renowned, prestigious Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA; In their opinion genetically modified foods are NOT safe for human consumption.
on April 19,2014 | 09:22AM
livinginhawaii wrote:
Please do not go off on a tangent - I am not looking for information from a private company. As I stated previously, I am looking for a url of a major public or private university's white paper that provides such evidence. Thank you in advance.
on April 19,2014 | 11:41AM
OldDiver wrote:
Greenpeace through EarthJustice has spend hundreds of millions of dollars in a misinformation campaign from Europe to Hawaii to scare people about GMO's. Every major scientific organization in those countries agree that GMO's are as safe to eat as non-GMO plants. The health food and organic food industry spends about 2 billion a year funding these organizations for their own benefit.
on April 20,2014 | 01:41AM
bekwell wrote:
The people at the world renowned, prestigious Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA; smoke genetically engineered pot.
on April 19,2014 | 12:44PM
niimi wrote:
Brazil kicked them all out. That is why they came to Hawaii because we are all pushovers here.
on April 19,2014 | 12:45PM
OldDiver wrote:
Greenpeace and EarthJustice also convinced farmers in the Philippines to burn their Golden Rice crops by scaring them into believing Golden Rice will kill them. Since that time many of kids in have gone blind from vitamin A deficiency and many more are starving. All this in a marketing campaign to boost profits for the health food industry which funds these organizations of terror.
on April 20,2014 | 01:48AM
kuroiwaj wrote:
Wazdat, I support GMO animals and plants. Just yesterday a medical research report was filed that science has developed stem cells from adult skin cells and from the stem cells developed red blood cells required for cure of blood cancers. And research continues to aid humans. Let's not use half truths in attempting to scare people. Prof. Schubert from the Salk Institute is accurate in pointing out the lack of data from both sides of the GMO issue. Thus he supports labeling of GMO products. I am interested in how the Court will rule on this issue for Kauai without any evidence that GMO's is good or bad. Maybe Hooser, et al are depending on the pesticide use issue to decide the issue. Kauai County has presented an excellent report on the Mayors veto and that legal report will have a huge bearing on the Court decision. Let's have the Court decide on the law with facts and truth on the GMO issue.
on April 19,2014 | 12:40PM
Kuokoa wrote:
Hooser and his types would rather see people and animals starve and die then to have food crops grow and prosper. Hooser was instrumental in killing the Hawaii Superferry now he wants to kill people by starving them.
on April 19,2014 | 08:47AM
Skyler wrote:
Pure hyperbole.
on April 19,2014 | 10:30AM
OldDiver wrote:
Hooser has political ambitions and believes his anti-GMO crusade will give him his platform to run for governor. Hooser is not a knight in shinning armor.
on April 20,2014 | 01:51AM
niimi wrote:
Um, organic foods are just as plentiful and without pesticides or genetic modifications. Imagine we had thousands of seed varieties of vegetables 100 years ago. Now less than 200 because the superseed companies want to dominate the industry and kill off all other varieties.
on April 19,2014 | 12:46PM
OldDiver wrote:
Organic farmers spray more pesticides than non-organic and GMO farmers. Google the Canadian survey on organic foods and pesticides.
on April 20,2014 | 01:53AM
Anonymous wrote:
Are you making the mistaken assumption that the pesticides used in organic farming is just as deadly and potent as those used in non-organic farms?
on April 21,2014 | 10:22AM
serious wrote:
Hawaii is the hub for GMO's. At least we lead the country in something good rather than be at the bottom of everything. I also researched and couldn't find anything wrong with GMO's---maybe the opponents can hire Al Gore--and he who also has no scientific evidence for global warming can lead the fight. The other states don't lead in this since they have diversified economies. Hawaii, don't kill a golden goose!!!
on April 19,2014 | 09:57AM
Skyler wrote:
What's good about making crops resistant to poison so more poison can be dumped on them? It never ends because bugs will become resistant to that amount in due time, and they'll have to dump more poison to kill them. All in all, it's just a big money-maker for the poison companies and certainly nothing for Hawaii to be proud of. It's embarrassing to be known for GMOs instead of true ALOHA.
on April 19,2014 | 10:29AM
OldDiver wrote:
That is a mischaracterization of the facts. Roundup resistant crops are but a small part of GMO crops. Roundup is an herbicide not a pesticide. Many organic farmers also use Roundup to control weeds.
on April 20,2014 | 01:58AM
Anonymous wrote:
The use of Roundup and commonly used insecticides (neonicotinoids) have been implicated in the destruction of bee colonies. Colony collapse disorder (CCD) and a weakening of bees' immune systems have been linked to these chemicals. Even the EPA admits to the connection. Other governments (most notably the European Union) have noticed the connection and have banned or severely restricted their use but not the U.S. The U.S. recognizes that bees are an integral part of the ecosystem but has done relatively little to protect them.
on April 21,2014 | 10:17AM
Kohelele wrote:
What you put into your food, your food will put into your body, simple as that. We should be a leader in self-sufficient and sustainable agriculture, not a leader in chemical experiments.
on April 19,2014 | 11:25AM
bleedgreen wrote:
Maybe they can move the farms to Oahu. Help the job market by stimulating agriculture and slow down urban development.
on April 19,2014 | 10:46AM
niimi wrote:
LOL, we had our chance to keep this stuff out of Hawaii. It is not too late. Brazil booted them out; Monsanto, DuPont, Pioneer. That is why they can to Hawaii. And they love it here because they have a year-around growing season. Let it continue and everything will be mutated varieties of veggies and fruits.
on April 19,2014 | 12:44PM
HanabataDays wrote:
This isn't primarily a question of whether the food is safe. It's the risk of getting into the downward spiral where (for example) corn borers can adapt quicker than the gene-splicing lab can -- it's already happened with that BT gene that was supposed to "bulletproof" so many crops. Issue #2 is related, the risk to the global food supply if GMO seed marketing leads to monocropping and, say, something out of the blue causes 80% of our wheat crop to fail. Issue #3 is the loss of crop diversity and heirloom varieties that breed true. Issue #4 is ethical: GMO seed corporations' ongoing attempt to monopolize sales and force farmers worldwide to buy GMO seeds every year instead of harvesting their own seed for next season.
on April 19,2014 | 04:20PM
Fern_Anuenue wrote:
This is a totally misleading article and completely one sided!! Lets start with the beginning our tiny little island state has over 5000 open air field trials of unapproved GMO crops, potentially more than anywhere else on Earth. Yea we are important, we are important research facilities for the largest chemical corporations on Earth where (don't be diluted by higher yields and drought tolerance) the bulk of what they do is chemical resistance and production. On our island, one of the smaller of the main Hawaiian islands (Kaua'i) we have roughly 12,500 acres of experimental field trials where 24D resistant varieties of crops and other pesticide resistant technologies have been being tested. Here we estimate that they are using between 18 tones and 27 tones of Restricted Use Pesticides (not general use that most farmers use) on our one tiny little island, and many many magnitudes more in general use pesticides. Our county didn't move to regulate, we asked to know!! We have been trying to find out what these experiments entail for well over a year, they keep denying us decent information so we passed a bill that would make them give us the information, what they spray, when they spray it and buffer our schools and sensitive areas (with 500ft between them and their experimental spraying). They keep pushing back, keep fighting to give us basic protection and information, while we estimate we could have 10x the birth defect rates for heart and gastro birth defects. Now we are being sued for passing the bill, that would only give us the right to know, buffer and study the impacts of their experimental research stations in mass here. . “We don’t plant anything that isn’t permitted and approved through the proper regulatory agencies” yet the community has asked for nearly two years to see their federally granted Pesticide Experimental Use Permit and we are not allowed to see it.... we know you are approved to experiment here, but by who and with what community consultation and "what are you doing in our backyards, is it linked to my baby being born with his intestines out of his body!" Is that not a fair question? Money money money and your profits, always in these types of articles, "look how important we are!" Well your costing us money, tourism, health and priceless things, like the health of our children, their ability to reproduce and be healthy. Take your money and we will replace our agriculture industry with food producers, not experimentation and open air field trials for chemical corporate giants! Give us farmers and take your experimentations! While we starve to poor health and import 90% of our food from 10,000 miles away these corporations and their profits pollute our ag lands, dominate our agriculture policies and corrupt our government. About 90% off the corn in America is one variety of GMO (round up ready, approved for human consumption) none of it is what is grown here on my island, with your new unapproved tests. What are you spraying on your experiments up the boundaries of our schools and homes, seems like a reasonable question to me, yet we are battling against these corporate giants with their fear mongering and their lies, and misleading articles like this. This isn't a battle over GM crops being good or bad, this is a battle for survival.
on April 23,2014 | 12:53PM
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