photo unavailable Gathering Place

Rick Klemm

Biotech is not only safe,
but it saved local papaya

In recent weeks, journalists from around the world have come to the islands to learn about our biotechnology industry. They had heard the concerns raised by Hawaii's anti-biotechnology groups, and came here to get the story.

The USDA's Foreign Agriculture Service, which helped to arrange the visits, was eager for the journalists to hear the truth about Hawaiian papaya, which is one of biotechnology's greatest success stories. Anti-biotech activists, including some in Hawaii's organic farm industry, have been fostering fears that pollen from virus-resistant biotech papayas is a threat to any organic papayas that might be grown and sold into foreign markets.

Actually, the opposite is the truth. There would be no papaya sales at all -- organic or nonorganic -- were it not for biotechnology. Ringspot virus essentially wiped out the papaya industry on the islands a few years ago. With the aid of biotechnology, a virus-resistant papaya was introduced in 1998, and the industry once again is thriving. In addition, groves of virus-resistant papaya trees serve as buffers to help keep the virus from spreading like wildfire to nonresistant organic and conventional papaya trees.

Pollen flow is a nonissue with regard to determining the "organic" status of a crop. Federally adopted organic standards do not prohibit the unintended presence of biotech traits in organic foods. Zero presence is something the organic industry has imposed on itself. Even if a nonbiotech tree were to be pollinated by a biotech papaya tree, the seeds inside the nonbiotech fruit might inherit the biotech trait but not the flesh of the fruit that is eaten. To ensure nonbiotech papaya, organic farmers need only plant non-biotech seeds.

Farmers can take simple steps to ensure seed purity, according to the university's horticulture department. If organic growers put a bag over unopened flowers on conventionally bred papaya plants, the flowers will self-pollinate, ensuring the purity of all seeds from that flower.

Papaya pollen is not the only pollen that has gotten a bum rap here. Because of misinformation spread by anti-biotech activists, some people have become concerned that pollen from crops grown by local seed companies might spread to organic crops or even to native plants. About 95 percent of all the biotech acres in Hawaii hold corn. Corn has no wild relatives in Hawaii, so the biotech genes can't spread into the environment.

There is not much chance for gene flow to nonbiotech crops, either. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) imposes restrictions on how experimental crops can be grown. Wide barriers are required to minimize the potential for pollen flow.

Hawaii is an important locale for seed companies and university biotech researchers because of our climate, but anti-biotech activists have overstated the extent of public and private biotech research. According to records on the APHIS Web site, there have been only 466 requests for experimental planting in Hawaii since January 2001. Only 125 permits and notifications are still in effect or pending, and some will never be acted upon.

Although seed companies control about 8,000 acres in Hawaii, only about 3,500 were planted last year. Of those, only about 1,400 were planted in biotech crops. Most of those acres were planted with seeds that already have been tested and approved by government regulators or are nearing approval after years of small-plot testing. Only a small number of acres were planted in truly experimental trials, which typically consist of only one or two rows of plants. Our islands are not overrun with biotech pollen, as critics have claimed.

Hawaii's agricultural bio-technology industry is providing good jobs and income for many island residents, especially in rural areas. The National Agricultural Statistics Service estimates that island biotech companies contributed $48.7 million to the state's economy last year. Many people who lost jobs when the sugar industry declined now are finding work with biotech companies.

Rick Klemm is executive director of HARTS Hawaii, an agricultural alliance that includes companies working with biotechnology in Hawaii.


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