Coffee growers urge
delay of biotech crop

Kona farmers worry about unknown
effects of genetic engineering

By Lyn Danninger

Kona coffee growers are concerned their premium variety could be diminished if genetically modified coffee stock is introduced into the region.

The Kona Coffee Council, the trade group representing growers, has called on the state and county governments, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, the University of Hawaii and all members of the Hawaii Coffee Association to impose a moratorium on any genetically modified stock entering the Kona region.

Currently, genetic experimentation is being carried out by UH scientists on Oahu and by Integrated Coffee Technologies, a private Honolulu company.

But the trade group is afraid research and plants could eventually move to the Kona region and get mixed in with existing coffee crops. Even if the genetically modified crop were introduced under controlled experimental conditions, growers are concerned about the possibility of cross-pollination.

"We cannot be put in the same position our papaya farmers are in, where it is impossible to find papaya seed uncontaminated by the genetically modified strain," said Merle Wood, past president of the council.

Although coffee is considered a self-fertilizing crop, cross-pollination can happen, Wood said.

"The moment coffee becomes tainted with (genetically modified strains), then it won't sell as a premium gourmet coffee anymore, and that could put 650 Kona farmers out of business," said Christine Shepherd, current president of the coffee council.

The farm value of the Big Island coffee crop is estimated at $11.9 million for the 2001-02 season, according to the state's Hawaii Agricultural Statistics Service.

Skip Bittenbender, an extension specialist with UH's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, said cross-pollination is possible but only if an entire plant were used. But where scientists are, for example, inserting a gene from a rice plant into root stock to encourage nematode resistance, that would not be the case.

"If you used (genetically modified) root stock, then no pollen would be produced except from the plant grafted on top," he said. "The plant they are working on transforming is the same plant that is now growing in Kona."

Shepherd said her group became concerned after hearing a status report on progress in genetically modified coffee research.

While not against the research, which currently includes developing a decaffeinated coffee bean, a way to control bean ripening and disease resistance modifications, Shepherd said her group is being understandably cautious and would want strict regulations and guarantees in place before the introduction of any genetically modified coffee plants.

"It's not a particular stand against it," Shepherd said. "We just wanted to make sure it hasn't already arrived."

Integrated Coffee is working on both the genetically modified decaffeinated bean and controlled bean ripening but hasn't run any field trials yet, said John Styles, the company's chief scientific officer and a former UH professor.

Styles said sales of any genetically modified coffee plants could be at least three to four years away.

"We're still working on it," he said. "It's really hard to give an estimate right now. With biotech, things seem to take longer than you think."

Styles said he understands the Kona farmers' desire to protect their small specialty market.

However, his group is generally looking toward the larger coffee market, he said.

For example, the controlled bean-ripening project applies more to areas where coffee is mechanically harvested. That does not occur in Kona, where beans are hand-picked.

If successful, introducing a gene that regulates the final stages of ripening would eliminate the mix of ripe and unripe beans collected when mechanical harvesting is used, thereby increasing yields, he said.

Still, Styles believes the decaffeinated bean represents a potentially lucrative crop, even for the comparatively small growers of Kona.

"I understand that they have a real boutique market, but in another way, they also need to be careful about turning down technology and that they don't decrease their market potential," he said.

"These are unique beans and there is more demand for specialized coffee. It would be a shame to close our local growers out."

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