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GMO ban would cripple Hawaii farming

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    Biotechnology enabled papaya farmers to battle the ringspot virus in the 1990s.

Roseanne Barr would like to burn down my papaya farm in Hawaii.

The wealthy actress said so earlier this month, during a public hearing on Hawaii Bill 79, proposed legislation that would outlaw growing genetically modified crops on the Big Island.

"For the people who make their living growing GMOs, you know everybody here is very giving and they probably would bend over backwards to help you burn those papayas and grow something decent," said Barr, who moved to Hawaii after making her fortune in Hollywood.

Barr speaks for a movement of political activists who want to wipe out modern farming in Hawaii. They’re trampling on science, violating the rights of farmers and ignoring an incredible success story.

Papayas are one of Hawaii’s great crops. I’ve grown them for four decades on Oahu. My family is so connected to the fruit that there’s even a variety named after us: the "Kamiya papaya."

During the 1990s, however, papaya farmers almost lost everything. The deadly ringspot virus spread through our islands and ravaged papaya trees. It became impossible to grow this delicious fruit.

Then the tool of biotechnology saved us. A scientist named Dennis Gonsalves figured out an ingenious way to make our papayas resist the ringspot virus. He inserted a piece of the virus’s own genes into papayas, effectively inoculating our plants.

Thanks to genetic modification, papaya farmers were able to grow papayas again. Today our small industry has recovered and virtually all of the papayas grown in Hawaii are GM crops.

Advocates of Bill 79 claim that their ban exempts papayas. This is true only in a highly technical sense. The legislation doesn’t outlaw GM papayas the way it outlaws other GM crops, but it imposes so many new restrictions on papayas that farming them will become impractical.

To make matters worse, Bill 79 casts doubt on a proven technology at a time when we’re trying to build an export market for papayas among Japanese consumers. Enacting the law would declare that Hawaii’s leaders don’t have confidence in the food local farmers are trying to sell overseas.

Yet the dispute over Bill 79 is about much more than papayas. It’s about the future of farming in Hawaii — and a ban on biotechnology would have a terrible effect on Hawaii’s ability to grow food.

One of our most important crops is coffee. In 2010, however, the coffee berry borer, a beetle native to Africa, arrived on our islands and started to infest our coffee farms. These pests drill holes into coffee beans, rendering them useless.

By some estimates, the 700 farms that make up Hawaii’s coffee industry have suffered losses of 25 percent or more. Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a $1 million plan to fight the bug, but everyone agrees that the problem is growing worse.

Can biotechnology help Hawaiian coffee beat the coffee berry borer the way it helped Hawaiian papayas defeat the ringspot virus? Or the way it helps most of the corn grown in the United States resist the corn borer? This is a promising possibility — but Bill 79 would make it illegal to utilize this important new technology.

How silly. Around the world, farmers have planted and harvested more than 3 billion acres of GM crops, from massive soybean operations in the United States and Brazil to subsistence farmers in Burkina Faso and the Philippines.

GM crops are a safe, healthy and well understood. They help us grow more food on less land, both preserving the environment and keeping food prices down for consumers. In the future, they’re only going to get better, as we develop drought-resistant crops that conserve water and biofortified rice that boosts nutrition.

But before anyone can enjoy these benefits, sensible people must play a little defense — and stop Roseanne Barr and her friends from burning down my papaya farm.

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