Trouble in paradise: Will the GMO debate consume Hawaii?

Fierce battles on Kauai and Hawaii Island could present an opportunity to learn about how innovation can dramatically reshape your prejudices. Or they can descend into chaos.

I’m a visitor to Paradise. I’ve come here, respectfully, at the invitation of farmers and ranchers because I believe in the role of technology in improving the quality and quantity of our food supply. And I believe that is being threatened by legislation now being considered that would severely restrict—and in reality could end—the innovative use of crop biotechnology.

First let me say that a discussion over GMO foods although not reflected in the current bills is a good thing. People want to be able to weigh the impact of innovations; they don’t want quick but unsustainable fixes; and they want an independent regulatory system. But that’s not what’s on the table.

Why am I now in Hawaii? I’m the founder of the Genetic Literacy Project and fellow at the Center for Health and Risk Communication at George Mason University. We are a resource hub for journalists, policymakers and the public, financed through foundation support and with a policy of accepting no industry contributions. Our goal is a simple one: help us sort through the costs and benefits of biotechnology,

I am traveling with Karl Haro von Mogel, a young plant geneticist at the University of Wisconsin and a founder of Biology Fortified, Inc. (, an independent nonprofit organization that promotes discussion of the nexus of biotechnology and sustainability.

We both believe that biotechnology and sustainable agriculture, which includes organic farming, are not natural enemies. Biotech focuses on improving the traits of the crops that we grow, while organic agriculture focuses mainly on farm management and our impact on the land. There’s no reason beyond ideology and politics why these two aspects of farming cannot work together to create a better agriculture for everyone.

But that’s now what’s going on here in Hawaii. After observing the discourse over these prospective initiatives, where the public appears to be sharply divided about GMOs, we thought we could play a role, however small, in encouraging genuine science-based dialogue.

What are the key issues? One thing we’ve heard on our few days here is the demand for “transparency”. Critics say that the federal government and the state are in cahoots, conspiring behind closed doors, to hide data that would show that GMOs or the chemicals used in the seed nurseries on the islands are dangerous to our health and the environment.

If you believe in that conspiracy theory, then stop reading; there’s really no hope for a conversation. I’m not saying governments can’t make mistakes; they do. What I am saying is that there is no hidden conspiracy. GM crops are America’s most extensively regulated agricultural system. If the goal is transparency and disclosure of biotech related practices, Hawaii already benefits from an established comprehensive evaluation and disclosure system.

Can the companies be more proactive in disclosing what and when they spray? That’s a more complicated issue than it seems on the surface, because hardcore anti-GMO activists would use any disclosure as a pretext for litigation. Let’s be clear here: the current bills being considered are not really about disclosure; they are designed to end genetic engineering. Again, if that’s what you want, there is no hope for a real discussion.

Right now, there is a poker game of sorts playing out on the disclosure front. If well-meaning critics—those who believe in co-existence but want transparency as an extra layer of protection—step to the fore, the corporations will come to the table on this issue; they’re moving in that direction already. There is a real possibility of compromise here.

The divide on other issues is wider, however. Activists say they don’t want to be human guinea pigs for corporate experimentation, that GMOs have not been tested and found safe. That’s flat out not true.

There is no more studied innovation in agriculture than crop biotechnology. There are an estimated 1000+ studies. In fact, Biology Fortified maintains a database, known as GENERA, that lists more than 650 of those, with more being added every day.

But they are all industry funded, I was told during a visit to Kauai last week. No. More than one-third of them are totally independent studies, funded by the US government, or the European Union or done at universities. Not one study that has run the gauntlet of critical review by mainstream scientists—not one—has shown that an approved GMO crop or food can cause any harm that is not also presented by conventional or organic agriculture.

But there are no long-term studies, it’s been said. I read it in a Little Red Booklet, Facing Hawaii’s Future, handed out at a farmer’s market I visited on Saturday. No. That’s not true. There are an estimated 100+ multi-month or multi-generational studies—and again, not one that has passed review by mainstream oversight agencies indicates GMO crops present any potential harm. Not one.

Let’s be real. There are food safety issues in conventional and organic agriculture Just last week, listeria was found in an organic milk supply. People die and get sick from tainted food every year. But GMOs? After 16 years and trillions of meals, not so much as a sniffle has been linked to their consumption. One independent scientist I talked with likened the danger of a food related allergy or health threat linked directly to GMOs as no more likely than earth being hit by an asteroid. It’s a risk, sure, but not a serious one. So, why this obsession by campaigners on the alleged dangers posed by GMO foods while real threats to our food supply are being shrugged off? To someone like me who is so science focused, it’s baffling.

But wait—what about the environmental damage? What about the over use of pesticides?

Pesticide use is a prickly issue. Nobody wants to use them. But Hawaii lies in the humid subtropics, and like Iowa in the summer it’s a haven for bugs and other pests. Without the judicious use of chemicals, we have no food. Just ask the Kona coffee growers – some of whom are organic – who spray their crops with chemicals to fight off the destructive borer insect.

Some corn and soybean varieties are engineered to be resistant to the pesticide glyphosate; when sprayed, weeds are killed but the plant thrives. But isn’t it harmful to the environment and humans? That’s misleading. Any chemical can be dangerous if we’re exposed to it at toxic levels. Compared to older chemicals, and even some used by organic farmers, it’s remarkably mild. It’s not carcinogenic or particularly toxic compared to the dangerous organophosphates it replaced.

It also degrades 100 percent in the soil. Overall, farmers who’ve switched to GMO pesticide resistant crops use fewer chemicals. That’s a fact and it’s a good thing. Equally as important, they have been able to switch to conservation tillage or no till farming—more sustainable agricultural practices— preserving the health of the soil—exactly what organic farmers aspire to do.

If Hawaii residents want to take control of their future rather than recoil from it, consider committing yourself to learning the basics of genetics. The biotech revolution is about innovation and change—and that can be scary. That’s why genetic literacy is so important.

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication and STATS (Statistical Assessment Service) at George Mason University.

  • Ratt Meaves

    Saying the words “its a fact” doesn’t make it so. Where are your studies showing there is a decrease in the use of “chemicals” as you say? Every study out there is showing a massive increase in herbicide and that the use of insecticide is now increasing. And you say that there are many “multi-generational studies” on something that has been around for about 18 years? Unless of course you are referring to multi-generational animal studies, which have all shown an unbelievable amount of harm to the animals fed GM foods ( Please defend yourself with some actually study links, and not just the ones funded or ran by the companies that produce these products. Sadly though a lot of the GM seeds can never be tested independently due to patents and the refusal of these companies to allow such independent testing. Biofortied has some studies showing no harm and some that show harm so to use that as your proof that not a single study shows any harm is ridiculous.

    Here are the actual studies that show our use of herbicides and pesticides are increasing.

    • You provided links to articles on popular sites citing activist reports, not articles by scientists or independent studies (not the Benbrook study…he’s an organic activist, not an independent scientist. Claims that “overall pesticide” use has increased may be technically true if you
      count “pesticides” as herbicides, insecticides and fungicides together because of the increased use of glyphosate, but this obscures the actual impact on the environment (Here’s a scientist’s article with links addressing that claim:

      Insecticide use has been cut 50-75% on GM corn and cotton–here’s a report on that by the National Academy of Science, the country’s premier independent research organization:

      That’s a major excellent environmental victory, yet sure makes the
      technology seem like it works and is environmentally helpful, so
      insecticides get lumped in with glyphosate under “pesticides”.

      Here is a great summary article, again by a scientist and not an activist, and again with great links:

      There is really not much debate about the sustainability benefits of GMOs on the chemicals front–they have been remarkably effective in reducing harmful inputs.

      • Ratt Meaves

        So you are agreeing that you’re generalization that the use of “chemicals” has gone down? Because all you try to prove in your response is that insecticides have gone down while seemingly agreeing that the other “chemicals” such as herbicide and others have gone up. Well of course insecticide will go down if you engineer the plants to produce their own insecticide!!! And there are many studies that show that the Bt that these plants are producing are a lot more harmful to humans and animals than the Bt insecticide that was sprayed on crops (which had no harmful effect on humans). I feel that creating plants that produce poison may be a terrible idea that we will soon see the consequences of.

        As for the herbicide resistance, this is a solution that will soon increase the problem it was trying to solve. If you read the report you cited;

        “The evolution of resistance to glyphosate in particular kinds of weeds
        and shifts in the weed community may increase production costs for
        farmers, require more tillage for weed control, and lead to at least a
        partial return to the use of different and often more toxic herbicides.
        The development and establishment of more diversified control strategies
        for managing weeds in HR crops is needed.”

        And adding to the problems with making plants produce insecticide. (also from your article)

        “For example, large-scale planting of IR crops has decreased populations
        of some insect pests targeted by Bt crops not just at a farm-field
        level but on a regional scale. It can also affect local and possibly
        landscape populations of nontarget or beneficial organisms according to
        crop species planted and management of pests, nutrients, water, and soil”

        What we are doing with GM crops is going to backfire and in many ways it already has. We can use our technology in ways to increase our food production to meet the growing demand of our population without tampering with the genetic structures of the food we are consuming. Please check out these links which I feel show a much more scientifically responsible method we can move forward to meet this growing demand.

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