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Hawaii Serves As World's Biotech Lab
1/16/2006 10:30:01 AM
Genetic engineering saved Ken Kamiya's papaya farm on Oahu's north shore, and it may yet rescue the orchid from the grips of a nasty flower-killing virus.
But in Kona, Una Greenaway lives in dread that biotechnology will ruin her organic coffee plantation. Pineapple industry officials have made it clear they want nothing to do with genetic engineering.
So it goes in the Aloha State, where genetic engineering has riven a state just now awakening to the fact that balmy and remote Hawaii has — for better and worse — long served as the world's largest outdoor biotechnology lab.
Since scientists first planted the spectacular commercial flop that was the Flavr Savr tomato on a small plot here in 1988, federal regulators have approved more than 10,600 applications to grow experimental biotech crops on 49,300 separate fields throughout the United States. More of these are in Hawaii than any other state.
Through the powers of biotechnology, low-nicotine tobacco, disease-resistant cotton and soy immune to weed killer are grown here. Hawaii's genetically engineered corn projects outnumber even those grown in Iowa and Illinois.
Biotechnology companies say the weather affords them a year-round growing season, while anti-industry activists say the five-hour plane ride from California gives the "gene jockeys" remoteness from prying eyes.
Whatever the reason, farmers such as Kamiya are satisfied with genetic engineering's effects on Hawaii.
Kamiya has grown papayas, Hawaii's best selling fruit behind pineapple, since he got back from serving in the Vietnam War in 1969. He lived through three crop-killing epidemics and the vagaries of farming, but by the early 1990s his farm, along with the entire Hawaiian papaya industry, was finally on the brink of destruction. They were at the mercy of a cureless virus.
Scientist Dennis Gonsalves, a native Hawaiian then at Cornell University, developed the clever idea to genetically splice a harmless piece of the virus into papaya trees — essentially vaccinating them in much the same way people fight the flu.
The gambit worked, and today, the virus is a mere nuisance for the $16 million industry — even for the 50 percent of papayas grown conventionally and without virus protection in Hawaii. That's because the virus has fewer places to roost now.
"Gonsalves saved out butts," Kamiya said as he wandered among the mini-palm trees bearing ripe yellow fruit on the 15-acre farm he leases from Brigham Young University, which maintains a campus in Laie some 40 miles north of Honolulu.
The day before, Kamiya spent five hours in Honolulu at a meeting helping to defeat a proposed measure from qualifying for the ballot that would have banned genetic engineering on Oahu island and effectively put him out of business.
But that's precisely what Hawaiian organic coffee growers like Greenaway and others want. They're shocked Hawaii has become biotechnology's chief laboratory and are concerned about their economic future.
Greenaway worries that the creeping march of biotechnology in Hawaii will soon spell her financial ruin if consumers fear famed Kona coffee was somehow tainted by biotechnology.
Researchers in the state are attempting to genetically engineer coffee plants to grow decaffeinated beans, which don't occur naturally. The researchers haven't yet grown their experimental coffee plants outdoors, even though federal regulators gave permission in 1999.
Still, Greenaway is haunted by the prospect that the work will move outdoors, then mix with her crop and dilute her coffee's punch. She worries no caffeine junkie paying $20 a pound for Kona coffee wants that.
"Genetic engineered coffee would be an economic disaster in Kona," Greenaway said.
In many ways, the biotechnology debate in Hawaii is a microcosm of the global debate over biotechnology.
There hasn't been a single allergic reaction or other health problem credibly connected to consuming biotech food. Still, many scientists do worry about the threats biotechnology poses to the environment, mainly through inadvertent cross-pollination with conventionally grown crops. That poses a particular problem for organic farmers who charge a premium to guarantee customers their groceries are free of genetic engineering.
The industry and its supporters proudly point out that biotechnology is actually helping small farmers by reducing pesticide use. Close to 8 million subsistence farmers throughout the developing world are growing genetically engineered soy and corn that require less toxic weed killer and bug spray, making farming better for the environment and for those toiling in the fields.
Yet, growing numbers of consumers and activists fret that the major biotechnology companies — specifically the titan Monsanto Inc. of St. Louis — are asserting a Microsoft-like grip on the world's food supply that will ultimately kill organic and family farms.
In Hawaii alone, several anti-biotech measures have been introduced recently in the Legislature mimicking laws in four California counties banning biotech, though none have passed here so far. A federal lawsuit filed last year effectively halted all experiments in Hawaii that involve splicing human genes into plants to produce medicine.
That kind of skittishness resonates with large food producers, which in the past have succumbed to consumers' skepticism about biotech food.
In 2000, McDonald's Corp. successfully cowed potato farmers to reject genetically engineered potatoes. Two years ago, bread makers forced Monsanto to abandon its plans to market genetically engineered wheat. And recently, pineapple industry representatives wrote the University of Hawaii that the industry doesn't want or need biotechnology.
But Steve Ferreira, a University of Hawaii researcher working on genetically engineered papaya, thinks those growers' sentiments would change if they were facing the decimation of their crops.