Biotechnology moratoriums push an extreme agenda
Jimmy Carter said, "Responsible biotechnology is not the enemy; starvation is." Although he made the statement more than 10 years ago, this former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner recognized the zealousness of "extremist groups" whose thinking was "dangerously misguided." Still today, they refuse to accept the incredible potential for biotechnology to increase crop yields (to feed the world's growing population), resist diseases and insects (to reduce the need for chemical pesticides) and help crops withstand drought conditions (due to global warming). Instead, they confuse and paralyze communities with fear of the unknown.
Hawaii has now found itself awkwardly positioned as the center of the international biotechnology debate with the introduction of bills mandating moratoriums on the testing, propagating, cultivating, growing and raising of genetically engineered taro, as well as coffee. It's evident that this legislation is simply an attempt to hijack legitimate cultural concerns by people with a broader philosophical and anti-scientific agenda. Proponents have said: "Hopefully this moratorium will lead to not only a ban on GMO taro, but all GMOs in Hawaii and elsewhere."
A wide variety of diseases and pests as well as the choice by growers to cultivate certain varieties over others have caused the decline of Hawaiian taro from more than 400 varieties in the early 1900s to fewer than 60 today. Invasive species and diseases such as the taro leaf blight and the alomae and bobone viruses have wiped out taro production in Samoa and the Solomon Islands. Because Hawaii is an international port and imports 20 percent of the taro, invasive species and diseases have a high probability of finding their way here and severely affecting the taro industry. The destruction to the native wiliwili trees is an example of what could happen to the taro plants in Hawaii.
Taro could benefit from the use of all plant-breeding technologies, including biotechnology, if that is acceptable to the Hawaiian community. Individual farmers should have the right to choose the crops they prefer to grow, using the production methods that best fit their farming needs -- whether that's organic, conventional or genetic engineering practices. The tools of biotechnology have been chosen by farmers in the United States and around the world, and have been proven safe and compatible with other farming methods.
Dialogue with the native Hawaiian community is an important first step to resolution. In 2005, the University of Hawaii agreed that genetic engineering research on Hawaiian taro would not proceed without discussions with the Hawaiian community, so they collaborated with Hawaiian groups to develop a process that balances the university's values relating to free inquiry and respect for indigenous knowledge, beliefs and practices.
Many people in Hawaii respect the cultural meaning of Hawaiian taro and believe that the Hawaiian community must lead the discussion of the future of Hawaiian taro. The Department of Agriculture's lead in convening taro stakeholders, under the auspices of the 2007 Senate Concurrent Resolution 206, will ensure a meaningful discussion about the preservation and protection of taro. Continuation of dialogue is necessary to arrive at real solutions for Hawaiian taro cultivation and preservation. Those advocating a moratorium in lieu of a more involved and engaged discussion about preservation are disingenuous and their motives should be suspect to Hawaiians.
Banning biotechnology satisfies a minority of extreme activists who are interested only in furthering their own narrow agenda. A moratorium will erode Hawaii's image and reputation as a center for science and technology innovation and restrict growth and investment. At a time when diversification of our economy is critical to the future of our state, the biotechnology industry contributes to Hawaii's ability to remain economically competitive, provide rewarding careers for our people, and preserve Hawaii's special environment and quality of life.
Alika Napier is an agronomist for Pioneer Hi-Bred International in Waialua and secretary for the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association. He lives in Waipio with his wife and two children and is a board member for his community association.