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Science and politics collide in the wake of Hawaii ban on GMO crops

Papaya tree
Forrest and Kim Starr (creative commons attribution)

IO9 has a Wednesday story about a blanket ban on GMO crops that has been imposed on the big island of Hawaii. The controversy has pitting scientists and farmers, who tend to support GMO crops, and a group of political activists, including a politician who is a recent immigrant from Maine, who oppose them. The very viability of Hawaiian agriculture may be at stake.

“Hawaii might seem an unlikely battleground for genetically modified crops, given that the state imports 85 percent of its food. But the subtropical climate—which is ideal for cash crops such as papayas, bananas and orchids—is also a thriving environment for weeds, insects and diseases. The papaya industry was nearly decimated by the ringspot virus in the 1990s, until scientists engineered a disease-resistant variety, the ‘Rainbow papaya.’ In short, this is a state where farmers appreciate what GM crops have to offer.

“And, the GMO producers appreciate what Hawaii's climate has to offer. All the major agrotech companies are there because developing a new seed variety can require10 to 12 growth cycles—which translates into 10 to 12 years on the mainland. In sunny Hawaii, 2 to 4 growth cycles can be squeezed into into a single year, significantly reducing the time required to bring seeds to market. Seed crops in Hawaii are worth more than $200 million—and most of those seeds are GM corn being developed for traits such as drought-resistance. An estimated 90 percent of all corn grown in the U.S. has been genetically modified, and each of those seed varieties spent some time being field tested in Hawaii.”

The ban was passed under somewhat dodgy circumstances, with scientists from the University of Hawaii barred from testifying during the Hawaii council hearings. Instead the main “expert” witness was a man who was heavy on political passion but rather light on scientific credentials. The scientists were demonized as being in the thrall of corporate interests.

Hitherto anti-GMO food activists have not been very successful getting the crops banned in the United States. A handful of counties, such as Jackson County Oregon, have managed such bans. The activists have been more successful in the Third World, for instance preventing the cultivation of so-called “golden rice” which has been modified to contain beta carotene, preventing blindness.

Hawaiian farmers are pushing back against the ban, even growers of papaya who have been exempted. A number of lawsuits have already been filed to overturn the ban. The political controversy continues, with the argument being that the ban was based more on social engineering and less on public safety. There is no scientific basis for a blanket ban on MO crops.

The legal argument presented by the lawsuits is that federal regulations already address the public safety issues surrounding GMO crops. There is no federal legislation specific to GMO crops. Rather they are regulated according to what they are and not how they were produced. At issues therefore is whether states are able to trump federal law and impose stricter regulations concerning GMO crops. On this matter legal opinion is divided. That suggests that there will be years of litigation on GMO regulation before the matter is sorted out.

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