Friday, June 15, 2001

Hawaii farmers defend
genetic testing

By Lisa Asato

Two national groups are calling for a moratorium on testing genetically engineered crops in outdoor fields -- an area in which they say Hawaii leads the nation.

U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Genetically Engineered Food Alert also said that selling genetically engineered foods should be halted until independent studies can prove that they do not harm humans and the environment.

But Richard McCormack, plant manager for Pioneer Hi-Bred International in Waialua, said the United States has some of the strongest regulatory standards in the world regarding product safety.

And, he said, the USDA is not alone in regulating genetic engineering. The Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency also are involved.

"It's significant scrutiny," he said, adding that genetically modified crops are put through three to 10 years of tests before they are cleared to enter the marketplace.

The groups' action follows release of their report, based on data provided by the U.S. Agriculture Department. Between 1987 and 2000, the department authorized almost 29,000 field tests of genetically engineered organisms despite uncertainties over their effects on the environment and inadequate regulations to monitor their impacts, the report said.

"Any new technology must be tested, but there are important scientific issues that must be addressed before genetically engineered foods can be released into the environment," Ahnya Chang, local campaign director for PIRG, said yesterday. "To conduct field tests before this has been done is both premature and hazardous."

The report found that Hawaii leads the nation in field test sites for genetically engineered crops such as corn, coffee, pineapple and papaya. The state has 3,275 outdoor testing sites comprising an estimated 8,563 acres, the report said.

Chang said the picture is incomplete because the groups could not readily access information such as how crops are being tested, types of pesticides being used and locations of the sites. She said such data are protected as "confidential business information."

McCormack, who is also the president of Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, the trade organization for eight seed-corn companies, said, "The federal regulatory agencies are not rubber stamps, because their business is to protect the American public."

Tish Uyehara, deputy director of the state Agriculture Department, said biotechnology has a "tremendous economic impact" for Hawaii.

She said the seed-corn industry, which deals partly in genetic engineering, is worth $33 million to $35 million annually for Hawaii. She said researchers who developed a disease-resistant papaya saved Hawaii's papaya industry in the early 1990s when the ringspot virus nearly wiped out local crops.

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