Gene tests on isle plants
is risky, advocate says

By Diana Leone

Without most people knowing it, Hawaii is becoming an experimental test plot for genetically modified plants, a California advocate for tighter controls on the industry is telling Hawaii audiences in a series of talks this week.

"Hawaii leads the nation in genetically modified organism (GMO) field test experiments," Claire Hope Cummings told more than 100 people attending a talk in Honolulu on Thursday.

This is a concern because Hawaii also leads the nation in endangered species, Cummings said.

Plants with genes altered by humans to give them a special characteristic, such as pesticide resistance, potentially could escape and cross-breed with local plants. This could create problems from "superweeds" that are pesticide resistant, to "pollution" of non-GMO crops with the altered seed, to unforeseen effects on endangered plants or animals, she said.

A former environmental lawyer and farmer who now speaks on food and farming issues, Cummings urges more scrutiny of unintended side-effects of genetically altered plants.

"What are the impacts on plants, soil, animals and human health," she asked those attending a talk at Central Union Church. Her talks continue today on the Big Island and tomorrow on Kauai.

Meanwhile, there are "no long-term ecological studies regarding the behavior of GMOs in the environment, and there is no human health testing," she said.

However, Carol Okada, a state Department of Agriculture plant specialist, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture and her department review all applications to bring a genetically modified plant here. For example, Okada said, GMO corn doesn't pose a risk of affecting native plants because there are none that could cross-breed with it. But the state has denied entry to pesticide-resistant potato plants because they might cross-breed with local weeds, Okada said.

Perhaps the most publicized concern about GMOs is the food industry's refusal to label products that contain them, Cummings said.

"U.S. polls show up to 95 percent of people want labels," she said.

Ania Wieczorek, a University of Hawaii researcher who does extension educating about GMOs, said that although Americans want GMO foods labeled, they still might be willing to eat them.

"American people like to have a choice," Wieczorek said.

Cummings warned against blindly trusting large seed companies to look out for what's best for Hawaii.

In an interview, Wieczorek cautioned against painting genetically modified plants and those who research them or plant them as "bad."

Current benefits of some GMOs include higher crop yields, greater pest resistance and less pesticide use, Wieczorek said. Potential future uses include creating crops with fewer calories or higher nutrition content, as well as pharmaceuticals or vaccines.

But she also agrees with Cummings that there are significant concerns, namely:

>> Potential ecological effects of GMOs on non-targeted organisms.

>> How, with a patent on GMO seeds, companies can monopolize a market and reduce farmers' independence.

>> Human health questions, such as the possibility that new allergic reactions could be created when genes from one plant are crossed to another species.

"The idea of eating a genetically engineered papaya makes me kind of queasy," one audience member commented in a question-and-answer session.

Cummings assured the man that he needn't be worried about it. She's more concerned about how neighbors of GMO test plots don't even know that they're there.

It's true that growers are not required to identify GMO test plots because there have been instances of vandalism, Carol Okada said. But they are required to comply with permit regulations, such as buffer zones between GMO plants and other crops.

On a USDA Web site, Hawaii is shown as having 92 releases of GMO plants. That compares with 217 releases in California, 50 in Texas or 101 in Iowa.

Okada noted that each time a test plot is approved, that counts as a release into the environment. Hawaii has a year-round growing season, which is one reason tests are done here.

"There are benefits and risks," Wieczorek said. "We shouldn't put all our crops in one basket ... we should really look at each specific crop and make proper risk assessment and health assessment, and after we've done proper testing make the judgment whether it should be released for commercial use or not."

For more information

Remaining talks on "The Impacts of GMOs in Hawaii" by Claire Hope Cummings are:
>> Today at 2 p.m. at the Outdoor Circle Educational Center and Gardens, Kuakini Drive, Kailua-Kona.
>> Tomorrow at 5 p.m. at Queen Liliuokalani Children's Center, 4530 Kali Road, Lihue.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Web sites on genetically modified organisms:

Union of Concerned Scientists Web site:

Genetic Engineering Action Network:

E-mail to City Desk


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