Too many unknowns to give biotechnology carte blanche
By Hector Valenzuela
Biotechnology has been heralded as one of the hot industries with the potential to help Hawai'i's economy loosen its dependence on tourism and the military.
Policymakers and university administrators have enthusiastically talked about the great potential for biotechnology in Hawai'i.
As an acknowledgement, the biotech industry named former Gov. Ben Cayetano the "Biotech Governor of the Year" for 2002 for helping to launch the biotech industry in the state. But the entire biotech picture is not as rosy as some would claim, as shown by the recent fines imposed by the EPA on Pioneer Hi-Bred for GMO pollen contamination in their Kaua'i research plots.
Currently, the local crop biotech sector is represented mainly by a number of out-of-state multinational corporations that establish biotech plots in the state as part of their in-house research programs. Because of its moderate weather, Hawai'i has become an experimental oasis for the world's seed biotech companies.
Overall, more than 1,400 permits have been issued for field testing of biotech products in Hawai'i, more than in any other state.
And herein lies one of the main problems that critics have about biotechnology: the secrecy involved in the testing and dissemination of genetically modified products to the American consumer. Until recently, there has been precious little public discussion in Hawai'i (or in the U.S., for that matter) concerning the pros and cons of the widespread adoption of crop biotechnology.
In summary, some of the important contentions on the debate concerning the use of biotech products include:
Biotech crops in general contain foreign genetic material that does not occur naturally in the crops in which this material is introduced. Many unknowns remain concerning what will be the effects of these foreign products as these are released in the environment. A salient example is that of pharmaceutical products produced on "pharm" crops. What will be the effect of some of these pharm products on the soil ecosystem, when these novel products are exuded through vast acreages through the roots of these plants?
When biotech crops are planted on extensive acreages, the risk exists of cross-pollinating relative weedy species, or relative nonmodified crops grown on neighboring farms. This could result in unintended ecological consequences. For example, this cross-contamination may produce "super weeds" that are more resistant to herbicides than their nonmodified siblings. If these biotech crops are grown near the center of origin of the species, the native species or varieties being grown by subsistence farmers may become contaminated with novel genes, perhaps causing irreparable damage to the basic genetic base that crop breeders rely on to continually introduce new and better features (such as disease resistance) to our modern nonmodified species.
EFFECTS ON HUMAN HEALTH
Industry pressure led the White House to declare that genetically modified crops are "substantially equivalent" to nonmodified crops, thus circumventing normal FDA and EPA testing. But this may not be the case. The foreign materials that are introduced into biotech crops could have unintended consequences on human health through direct action, or by interacting with other chemicals in ways that we currently don't understand. Concern also exists that many of the novel genetic materials introduced into crops may cause unintended allergenic or toxic reactions on humans or children that are especially sensitive to specific chemicals. For example, recent research from Europe showed that some of the genetic material introduced into the UH's developed biotech papaya is identical to a known human allergen.
THE RIGHT TO KNOW
In democratic societies such as ours, consumers would like to feel confident that regulatory agencies will keep us abreast of potential environmental and health risks when new products are introduced into the marketplace. It is thus amazing to learn that the public in the U.S. still knows little to nothing about the biotech industry, and about the extent to which biotech products have become part of our daily diets.
CORPORATE PROFITS VS. FARMER INDEPENDENCE
With all the promises to save the world from hunger and disease aside, the major incentive for corporations in their promotion of the biotech revolution are the incredible potential profits. In some cases, farmers need to purchase the biotech seed (such as Roundup Ready soybeans) as well as the pesticide (Roundup herbicide, which represents 80 percent of Monsanto's profits) from the same company — to obtain the full benefits of this production "package." But, in the long term, will farmers benefit or will farmers just continue to become more and more dependent on corporations to maintain their livelihoods?
Is biotechnology the only answer out there to solve the crop production problems farmers encounter in the farm? Not really. Alternative programs such as classical breeding, and agro-ecological techniques exist to deal with many of the production problems found in the farm. However, the bulk of the research conducted by universities has focused on chemical and on biotech agriculture rather than on the search for ecologically based solutions.
Little to no research has been conducted in Hawai'i or elsewhere to develop chemical-free, or organic farming, production systems.
The challenges faced by the biotech industry do not mean that the science in itself is wrong.
On the contrary, biotechnology is a fascinating field that is rapidly expanding our knowledge base in the biological sciences.
But the public should not be kept on the sidelines as corporations and universities use tax-payer subsidies to help develop and release new products into our environment.
In the end, an educated citizenry will be better prepared to make educated decisions concerning issues that clearly affect them and the future of their children — issues such as the quality of the food they consume and the quality of the environment they live in.
Both sides of the genetic engineering debate can cite examples to back up their claims:
SAVING A THREATENED CROP
Scientists have developed a strain of papaya for Hawai'i that is resistant to the ring-spot virus which threatened to wipe out the Island papaya industry.
Biotech crops contain foreign genetic material that does not occur naturally in the crops in which this material is introduced.
GIVING THE CUSTOMER WHAT HE WANTS
A variety of coffee has been developed in the lab that is naturally decaffeinated for customers who want brew without getting the buzz.
There is a risk of cross-pollinating weed species. This cross-contamination may produce "super weeds" that are more resistant to herbicides.