Monday, August 8, 2005

Nation’s genetically
altered corn supply
has roots in isles

About half of corn’s 92% share of
the local seed industry involves
biotech varieties

Persistently sunny and winter-free, Hawaii fields once used for sugar cane and pineapple now serve as the incubators for hybrids and new, genetically manipulated strains of one of the nation's oldest food staples.

Since the Indians first introduced corn to the Pilgrims, production has grown to about 80 million acres nationwide and a billion-dollar business. Between 1998 and 2001 the production value of corn averaged about $18 billion.

The corn plant itself has also gone through some significant changes.

Industry experts estimate about half of the nation's corn today has its beginnings in biotechnology, meaning at least some of a plant's genetic origins can be traced back to a laboratory instead of an open field.

Among the goals behind such genetic manipulation -- generally involving the insertion of foreign gene material into plant tissues -- is to induce resistance to yield-cutting diseases or insects, or even the herbicides used to kill the weeds growing between the rows.

While the islands are not a major source of the corn eaten by consumers or livestock, many parents of the plants that yield the seeds sold to farmers around the nation and the world have their origins in Hawaii.

"Most any corn hybrid, and a lot of the soybean that would be planted, spent some time in Hawaii in its earlier part," said Cindy Goldstein, Waialua-based manager of outreach at Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., a subsidiary of DuPont. "We're not producing something that goes directly into a bag for sale, but something that a farmer in Romania is growing or that a farmer in Brazil or Argentina is growing did spend time in the soil in Hawaii in its earlier production stages."

About 92 percent of Hawaii's growing $60.2 million seed industry is corn -- and about half of that involves biotech varieties, Goldstein said.

And while only about 1,700 acres -- many of those on Oahu and Kauai -- are dedicated to nurturing the biotech progenitors of the plants eventually used to grow food and feed, Hawaii figures big in the industry.

Growing the number of hybrids of corn needed to develop a desired strain in a greenhouse is almost impossible, said Nathan Danielson, director of biotechnology for the National Corn Growers Association.

Along with fellow winter refuges Puerto Rico and Chile, Hawaii enables the industry to grow in a real environment every month.

"I guess you could make the case that Hawaii's kind of an unreal environment compared to Iowa, but it really gives us the ability to advance new and beneficial crops year-round as opposed to just seasonally," Danielson said.

Hawaii has a history of being on the front lines of genetic manipulation. In the late 1990s a transgenetic variety of papaya helped save the Big Island's papaya industry when local crops were devastated by the papaya ring virus.

Though the effect of genetic modification on crop yields is impressive -- biotech gave corn a boost of more than $150 million in 2003, according to the National Corn Growers Association -- the new technology has not been entirely welcome.

The movement against genetically modified organisms remains active locally in Hawaii. A 2003 federal lawsuit by environmental groups led to a recent ruling by the U.S. District Court in Honolulu compelling the U.S. Department of Agriculture to disclose the locations of permits for open-field testing of pharmaceutical crops in Hawaii.

Another lawsuit was filed last week, this time challenging the state Board of Agriculture over its approval of a permit allowing a company to grow genetically modified algae off the coast of the Big Island to use for medicines for asthma and other ailments.

Una Greenaway of GMO Free Hawaii -- the group is one of the plaintiffs in that case -- said she feels the state has sold out. "I think Hawaii's doing what they've often done, and that's sort of taking the first dollar that's waved in front of their face and not really thinking about the future," Greenaway said.

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