EPA after isle
biotech firms

The agency says 2 companies
that cultivate genetically altered
corn have violated permits

By Lyn Danninger

The federal Environmental Protection Agency may fine two Hawaii-based agricultural biotechnology companies for violating their permits to grow genetically modified corn crops.

The EPA said it was the first time the agency had considered action against biotech companies conducting genetically modified field trials.

Letters about the violations were sent last week to Pioneer Hi-Bred International and Mycogen Seeds, a unit of Dow Agrosciences LLC.

The crops are grown at Pioneer Hi-Bred's research stations on Kauai and Dow Agrosciences' facility on Molokai.

The letters said the companies were not meeting EPA isolation and containment requirements for the crops. Each company is accused of two separate violations of EPA regulations.

In one case, the EPA says, Mycogen did not isolate its experimental insect-resistant corn with a border crop of non-genetically modified corn and failed to plant trees which would act as a windbreak. The EPA says Pioneer Hi-Bred planted its experimental crop in an unapproved location too close to other crops.

The fear is genetically modified crops will cross-pollinate with neighboring crops.

The EPA letters were made public yesterday by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington advocacy group that obtained copies of the letters under a freedom-of-information request.

The group says it is not opposed to biotech crops but wants stronger regulations.

"We are comfortable with these crops as long as conditions are enforced," said the center's Gregory Jaffee. "You need to have some kind of deterrent so people abide by conditions."

The corn crops in question are genetically engineered to resist pests corn rootworm and corn bore. By producing their own pesticide, the need for conventional chemical pesticides is reduced.

After the EPA investigation is complete, the companies could receive fines of up to $5,500 per violation.

Johnston, Iowa-based Pioneer Hi-Bred had every reason to believe it had followed EPA regulations, said spokesman Doyle Karr.

"We are looking forward to having the opportunity to visit with the EPA and share our information and clarify any misunderstanding," he said.

Karr said it was the first time his company, which has worldwide operations, had received such a letter.

Dow Agrosciences, headquartered in Indianapolis, could not be reached for comment; but a spokesman for the company told the Associated Press it takes the EPA concerns seriously and is investigating the matter.

"At no time was there any risk to human health and safety and the environment," said Dow's Pete Siggelko.

Hawaii's Department of Agriculture also has some jurisdiction in the case, but it deferred to the EPA because the federal agency had issued the field trial permits to the two companies, said Robert Boesch, chief of the Agriculture Department's Pesticide Branch.

"In this case, the EPA issued an experimental use permit so we felt since it was their permit, it would be more appropriate for them to do the inspections," he said. But the department will be following the investigations, he said.

Boesch said he could not comment on the letters since an investigation is under way.

The allegations against the two companies come at a time when concerns are being raised about experimental crops slipping into the food supply. The White House recently proposed regulations for biotech crops undergoing field tests.

Hawaii is a popular location for such tests. The year-round growing season means what is produced here gets commercialized a lot faster.

"It's unique in that it allows us to do year-round tests," said Pioneer's Karr.

Apart from the weather, Hawaii is attractive because it doesn't have the political unrest of other areas considered suitable for such experiments. And with the decline of the sugar industry, more acreage is now accessible to seed companies.

The Hawaii Agricultural Statistics Service estimates the value of Hawaii's seed industry at a record high $35.4 million for the 2000-01 season. Seed corn continues to dominate all others with a 2000-01 value of $33.2 million.

However, the experimental genetically modified crop would not be included in those totals, since it is not sold.

Even so, the industry -- even in Hawaii -- has generated controversy.

Recently, Kona coffee growers expressed concern that their premium variety could be reduced in value if genetically modified coffee stock is introduced into the region. The Kona Coffee Council called on state and county governments and the University of Hawaii to impose a moratorium on any genetically modified stock entering the Kona region.

Genetic experimentation to develop disease resistance is being carried out by UH scientists. A private biotechnology firm is also working on developing both a decaffeinated coffee bean and controlled ripening of coffee plants. Neither have been field tested yet.

But opposition comes mostly from groups opposed to any genetic engineering in biotechnology research.

In 2000, two experimental farms were vandalized. Novartis seeds Inc., now Syngenta Seeds Inc., said it suffered $4,800 in damage when 2,400 corn plants were destroyed in Kauai. Officials from the University of Hawaii's Kauai Agricultural Resource Center said vandals did $3,750 worth of damage to pineapple, taro, awa and papaya plants at the site.

E-mail to Business Editor


Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
© 2002 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --