Since scientists first planted the spectacular
commercial flop that was the Flavr Savr tomato on a
small plot here in 1988, federal regulators have
approved more than 10,600 applications to grow
experimental biotech crops on 49,300 separate fields
throughout the United States. More of these are in
Hawaii than any other state.
Through the powers of biotechnology, low-nicotine
tobacco, disease-resistant cotton and soy immune to
weed killer are grown here. Hawaii's genetically
engineered corn projects outnumber even those grown in
Iowa and Illinois.
Biotechnology companies say the weather affords them a
year-round growing season, while anti-industry
activists say the five-hour plane ride from California
gives the "gene jockeys" remoteness from prying eyes.
Whatever the reason, farmers such as Kamiya are
satisfied with genetic engineering's effects on
Kamiya has grown papayas, Hawaii's best selling fruit
behind pineapple, since he got back from serving in
the Vietnam War in 1969. He lived through three
crop-killing epidemics and the vagaries of farming,
but by the early 1990s his farm, along with the entire
Hawaiian papaya industry, was finally on the brink of
destruction. They were at the mercy of a cureless
Scientist Dennis Gonsalves, a native Hawaiian then at
Cornell University, developed the clever idea to
genetically splice a harmless piece of the virus into
papaya trees — essentially vaccinating them in much
the same way people fight the flu.
The gambit worked, and today, the virus is a mere
nuisance for the $16 million industry — even for the
50 percent of papayas grown conventionally and without
virus protection in Hawaii. That's because the virus
has fewer places to roost now.
"Gonsalves saved our butts," Kamiya said as he
wandered among the mini-palm trees bearing ripe yellow
fruit on the 15-acre farm he leases from Brigham Young
University, which maintains a campus in Laie some 40
miles north of Honolulu.
spent five hours in Honolulu at a meeting helping to
defeat a proposed measure from qualifying for the
ballot that would have banned genetic engineering on
Oahu island and effectively put him out of business.
But that's precisely what Hawaiian organic coffee
growers like Greenaway and others want. They're
shocked Hawaii has become biotechnology's chief
laboratory and are concerned about their economic
Greenaway worries that the creeping march of
biotechnology in Hawaii will soon spell her financial
ruin if consumers fear famed Kona coffee was somehow
tainted by biotechnology.
Researchers in the state are attempting to genetically
engineer coffee plants to grow decaffeinated beans,
which don't occur naturally. The researchers haven't
yet grown their experimental coffee plants outdoors,
even though federal regulators gave permission in
Still, Greenaway is haunted by the prospect that the
work will move outdoors, then mix with her crop and
dilute her coffee's punch. She worries no caffeine
junkie paying $20 a pound for Kona coffee wants that.
"Genetic engineered coffee would be an economic
disaster in Kona," Greenaway said.
In many ways, the biotechnology debate in Hawaii is a
microcosm of the global debate over biotechnology.
There hasn't been a single allergic reaction or other
health problem credibly connected to consuming biotech
food. Still, many scientists do worry about the
threats biotechnology poses to the environment, mainly
through inadvertent cross-pollination with
conventionally grown crops. That poses a particular
problem for organic farmers who charge a premium to
guarantee customers their groceries are free of
The industry and its supporters proudly point out that
biotechnology is actually helping small farmers by
reducing pesticide use. Close to 8 million subsistence
farmers throughout the developing world are growing
genetically engineered soy and corn that require less
toxic weed killer and bug spray, making farming better
for the environment and for those toiling in the
Yet, growing numbers of consumers and activists fret
that the major biotechnology companies — specifically
the titan Monsanto Inc. of St. Louis — are asserting a
Microsoft-like grip on the world's food supply that
will ultimately kill organic and family farms.
In Hawaii alone, several anti-biotech measures have
been introduced recently in the Legislature mimicking
laws in four California counties banning biotech,
though none have passed here so far. A federal lawsuit
filed last year effectively halted all experiments in
Hawaii that involve splicing human genes into plants
to produce medicine.
That kind of skittishness resonates with large food
producers, which in the past have succumbed to
consumers' skepticism about biotech food.
In 2000, McDonald's Corp. successfully cowed potato
farmers to reject genetically engineered potatoes. Two
years ago, bread makers forced Monsanto to abandon its
plans to market genetically engineered wheat. And
recently, pineapple industry representatives wrote the
University of Hawaii that the industry doesn't want or
But Steve Ferreira, a University of Hawaii researcher
working on genetically engineered papaya, thinks those
growers' sentiments would change if they were facing
the decimation of their crops.
"Their need is not as urgent as it was with the papaya
farmers," Ferreira said
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