Biotech food

First in a six-part series

HB 1226 raises issue of government regulation

By David Lichtenstein – KMKK-FM News Director

Every day, people on Molokai eat genetically modified foods, work with genetically modified corn and discuss the many issues surrounding genetic engineering.

This uniquely 21st century debate has raged across the world, the state and Molokai since bioengineered ingredients began appearing in food products 14 years ago. The introduction of House Bill 1226 on January 28 helps illustrate the division between the two sides.

HB 1226 (“Relating to genetically modified (GM) plant organisms”) will limit the ability of state and county government to regulate this industry. The bill has been endorsed by the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, a nonprofit group representing the Hawaii seed industry.

Molokai’s Adolph Helm, project manager at Dow Agro-Science, a seed corn research and production company, testified in favor of the bill. He stated that the industry is already strongly regulated by federal agencies along with the state Department of Agriculture. “County-by-county legislation creates a patchwork of regulations … (and) inhibits investment in agriculture biotechnology statewide,” said Helm.

On the other side is Steve Morgan, a local activist representing Hui Ho’opakele ‘Aina. Even though lawmakers in the House Agriculture Committee unanimously recommended the measure on March 4, Morgan is asking citizens to write letters to state senators asking them to block this legislation. Morgan offers a form letter that says, in part, “This bill takes away the right of local communities to make decisions over the GMO issue … GMO’s remain highly untested and federal testing and evaluation of GMO farming and food products is almost nonexistent.”

Supporters of GMO farming believe the industry is already well regulated and offers many advantages to farmers and consumers through the use of responsible science and technology. Opponents believe the science is untested and presents serious health hazards.

So where does the truth lie?

Benefits of bioengineered foods

As with many technologies, the question over whether or not genetically engineered foods are safe is about weighing risks and benefits.

On one hand, GMOs — which can be found in 70 percent of the food on our store shelves — can eliminate certain diseases such as the ring spot virus found in papaya. Nutritional benefits can also be found in GMO products such as “Golden Rice.” This form of genetically engineered rice helps alleviate vitamin-A deficiency in children in developing countries and is now available free of charge.

Reducing the use of pesticides is another important benefit from GMOs. The insertion of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin into corn and cotton crops through genetic engineering allows farmers to control pests without spraying pesticides. A 2006 study published in “Transgenic Research” shows that Bt corn can improve human and animal health by reducing contamination of food by mycotoxins, which are toxic chemicals produced by fungi.

As a result of these developments, chemical pesticide use has been cut by 46 million pounds per year, according to Paul Koehler, Manager of Scientific and Community Affairs for Monsanto Hawaii.

Monsanto, the worldwide leader in the use of biotechnology, is the largest employer on Molokai. Along with Mycogen Seed, Monsanto plants thousands of biotech corn plants on Molokai every year to develop specialized GM corn seed for farmers. Monsanto’s Molokai operation employs 165 people on a footprint of 1,850 acres, and farms 400-500 acres of corn at a time.

Weighing the risks

These improvements to the crop sound great, but at what risk? A thorough human feeding trial for foods produced from GMOs has never been undertaken. Data from animal tests also show that harmful side effects may be possible.

Jeffrey Smith is the author of “Seeds of Deception” and “Genetic Roulette,” and has made a career of criticizing the biotechnology industry. Last month Smith visited Molokai and gave several presentations.

Smith claims that the Bt genes inserted into GMO crops continue to function in our intestines. “If … GE corn were to transfer to the bacteria inside our gut, it might transform it into living pesticide factories, possibly for the rest of our lives,” said Smith.

In a report issued by the American Medical Association, no adverse effects on human health have been reported in peer-reviewed scientific literature and according to regulatory agencies. The AMA does say, however, that “long-term effects are theoretically possible.”

“You could not ask for a better health and safety record, nor can you say the same thing about other types of foods,” said Koehler. “Nevertheless, opponents of biotech crops continue to describe them as ‘untested’ and ‘unsafe.’ This is simply untrue.”

Smith clearly believes GMO foods are unsafe when he says, “we’re all being used as guinea pigs in an uncontrolled experiment.”

The debate continues.

(Next week the series will look at how bioengineered foods get from the laboratory to the kitchen and how the government regulates this process.)

David Lichtenstein is the News Director for KMKK radio. Listen to KMKK, 102.3 FM, Molokai’s only radio station, for Molokai news reports every weekday morning at 6 a.m., 7 a.m. and 8 a.m.