As ag giants, environmentalists and politicians debate the safety of genetically modified foods, chances are you're eating them... whether you like it or not
April 30, 2009If you eat papaya in Hawaii, you're probably eating a genetically modified food. Often called "Frankencrops," more than 80 percent of Hawaiian papaya is tweaked using genetic and DNA science. Don't be surprised if you didn't know, because it looks and tastes like a papaya and genetically modified foods aren't labeled as such. Therein lies one of the many controversies surrounding genetically engineered (GE) food and genetically modified organisms (GMO) in Hawaii, and worldwide—a decades-old battle pitting conservationists against portions of the science and business communities.
According to the nonprofit organization Hawaii SEED, many of the foods you pick up at any U.S. grocery store contain GE products, such as whole corn and soy beans and the oils of canola, soy, corn and cotton seed. It's estimated that 75 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves contain GE ingredients, including snacks, baby food and condiments (see sidebar).
"Genes are taken from bacteria, viruses, insects, nuts, fish and animals and spliced into common food crops. Most Hawaiian papayas are transgenic, containing virus, antibiotic-resistant and E-coli bacteria genes," says Bonnie Bonse, island coordinator for Hawaii SEED.
Those in favor of GMOs—like the University of Hawaii and Monsanto, a primary GMO producer in Hawaii—use their technology in 17 U.S. states to create fruits, vegetables and grains that are resistant to disease, grow in mass quantities and identically resemble their organic counterparts. Monsanto currently runs full-page advertisements in the Wall Street Journal promoting its technology as one that could "save the world from hunger" by feeding people mass-produced GE foods at a lower cost. Using gene-splicing and DNA-cloning technologies typically found in the medical field, Monsanto then patents its creations to sell to farmers. This business provides a literal cash crop for companies.
Still, is the human race ready to ingest test tube food? And even if we aren't, do we really have a choice?
Some non-human tests seem to indicate GMO foods have no adverse effects. But opponents of the technology say the science is far too young to make such bold claims. "People will say they're regulated and safe, [but] I would like to see the data on that myself," says Dr. Lorrin Pang, a Maui-based scientist. "We never saw smoking caused cancer until the '50s. We haven't looked at GMOs that way—and we can't because they aren't labeled."
It isn't just scientists and advocacy groups voicing concern. One of Hawaii's largest papaya buyers, Japan, stopped purchasing the product after GMO technology was introduced into the crop.
The latest skirmish on the GMO front in Hawaii is a piece of legislation recently brought to the state capitol. The Taro Security Bill (HB1663), authored by Maui Rep. Mele Carroll, intendeds to preserve Hawaii's staple by banning all GMO production of taro. While the bill passed and is expected to be signed into law in May, it's worth noting that the ban will last only five years and applies only to Hawaiian taro. Non-Hawaiian taro, such as the popular Chinese Bun-long variety, can still be genetically engineered.
"I think taro farmers have made great strides in educating the legislature about their concerns of genetic testing. I'm hopeful Hawaiian issues such as taro security will remain on the forefront," says Carroll, who grows dry-land taro. "We want to protect our cultural integrity, especially when it comes to our kalo."
Hawaiian taro isn't currently in danger of dying off to the point where super taro needs to step in and save the industry. There are other countries, however, that use taro as a main diet staple and are unable to keep up production. University of Hawaii Vice President for Research James Gaines, who spoke out against HB1663, says GE taro can solve these countries' agricultural problems. While UH wants to propel GE research in the state, the publicly funded university is caught between a rock and a hard place—science and public opinion.
"[The] research expertise of the UH cannot be legislated away from the real needs of real people in developing nations who are challenged by the loss of their staple taro crops due to the effects of new diseases and global warming and the pressures of overpopulation," Gaines said in testimony presented to the state House Committee on Hawaiian Affairs in February. "We understand that the most significant issues affecting taro in Hawaii—invasive species and diseases associated with imported taro and issues related to agriculture—are not being addressed by this legislation. UH must reiterate that research is not the problem nor is it a threat to Hawaiian taro. Research is not a cultural issue and we respectfully oppose the passage of this bill."
Others agree that GE technology is not only good for humanity but environmentally friendly as well. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, traditional agricultural practices account for 14 percent of greenhouse gases worldwide. By using GE seeds for farming, less herbicides and tilling are needed, while increasing yield. The June 2008 issue of Wired magazine points out that GE corn is the leading contributor to bio-fuel, producing higher yields with less fertilizer.
This isn't the first time the public has butted heads with UH on GMO production of Hawaiian crops. The story actually begins in 1998 when the first genetically modified papayas were commercially grown in Hawaii. Hawaii's fifth-largest crop went through a crisis in the mid-1990s when a ringspot virus wiped out close to half of the state's papayas. GMO researchers located a protein gene in the virus, cloned it and inserted the gene into the papaya, making the fruit resistant to ringspot. Within a few years, papaya production made a strong comeback.
Then something unexpected occurred: the open-air GMO papaya farms began cross-pollinating with organic farms. Samples taken from Big Island organic farms, backyards and the wild showed at least half were unknowingly producing GMO papaya. Oahu showed a contamination of 5 percent and Kauai had trace levels. UH itself was selling contaminated papaya seeds, causing public outrage and proving that growing GE foods outside of a laboratory in open fields leads to contamination of non-GMO farms.
One of Monsanto's biggest defenses is that people have the choice to not eat GMOs. "Individuals who make a personal decision not to consume food containing GM ingredients can easily avoid such products," the company says on its Web site. "In the U.S., [consumers] can purchase products that are certified as organic under the National Organic Program."
Papaya consumers in Hawaii found out the hard way that isn't always true, and those who do operate under the National Organic Program could easily lose their certification for growing and selling GMOs without realizing it.
"The entire future of organic farming is threatened. GE pollen has been shown to transfer genetically engineered genes into previously conventional and organic crops," says Bonse. "It is expected that Bt, a natural insecticide used in organic farming, will lose its effectiveness due to the widespread use of crops modified to express the Bt toxin in every cell."
Despite the fact that GE technology shows no signs of slowing down, many Hawaii residents are adamantly opposed to Monsanto. And they're not alone. A May 2008 Vanity Fair piece titled "Monsanto's Harvest of Fear" charged the company with going after "farmers, farmers' co-ops, seed dealers—anyone it suspects may have infringed its patents of genetically modified seeds." In March, Monsanto, which has a presence on Maui and Molokai, announced plans to shut down operations on Kauai citing "cost saving" measures. Many have celebrated the news, though state agriculture officials, county farm bureaus, chambers of commerce and UH all contend that if this "anti-technology, anti-modernization" mentality continues in Hawaii, the state will lose millions of dollars as Monsanto and other GE companies move to less hostile communities.
Much like Mary Shelley's masterpiece, Frankenstein, the use of GE technology is scary to some and intriguing to others. Basically, it's messing with nature to create something larger—and potentially more powerful—than normal. The question remains: will "Frankencrops" be accepted into society and treated like all other home-grown fruits, or will the villagers chase them down with the proverbial torch until GE technology destroys its creator? MTW
Some popular foods that contain GE ingredients, and some GMO-free alternatives
Baby food: Enfamil (GMO) Gerber (GMO-free)
Peanut butter: Skippy (GMO) MaraNatha (GMO-free)
Ketchup: Heinz (GMO) Muir Glen (GMO-free)
Macaroni: Kraft (GMO) Annie's (GMO-free)
Frozen pizza: Tombstone (GMO) Amy's Kitchen (GMO-free)
Potato chips: Frito Lay (GMO) Kettle Chips (GMO-free)
Crackers: Wheat Thins (GMO) Barbara's Wheatines (GMO-free)
Cereal: Kellogg's Corn Flakes (GMO) Health Valley Oat Bran Flakes (GMO-free)
Orange juice: Minute Maid (GMO) Odwalla (GMO-free)
Cookies: Oreo (GMO) Newman-Os (GMO-free)
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