Dec. 15, 2008
Just beyond the defunct Koloa Sugar Mill on the Hawaiian island of Kauai’s south shore are acres of cornfields that have sprouted over the past decade in a state made famous by its pineapples, bananas and sugarcane crops. Slightly out of place in the Aloha State, they otherwise look quite conventional, although in fact they are not: The crop is among a bounty of others in the state that are grown from seeds that have been genetically engineered or modified (GM) to produce sturdier plants able to withstand weather and disease as well as thrive in the face of insects and chemicals sprayed on them to kill destructive weeds.
In front of one plot of corn stalks is a red and white sign warning, “Danger: pesticides. Keep out.” Tacked to it is a list containing 15 chemicals that may have been applied to the crop. In this case, the chemicals circled are the herbicides pendimethalin (brand name: Prowl), dicamba (Banvel) and atrazine, the latter of which is banned in the European Union (E.U.) because of its link to birth defects in frogs that live in groundwater contaminated with it.
I pass these corn fields every day when I go to the beach to go swimming,” says Marty Kuala, 68, a 36-year resident of the town Koloa who worked in a plant nursery (that grew native plants such as naupaka, a’ali’i, and naio) in 2005. “It’s kind of a new thing that we’re starting to see these fields [of genetically modified or engineered crops] all over the place. GMOs [genetically modified organisms] are growing in the Mahaulepu area on Kauai’s south shore and even in the large populated areas of Lihue, our biggest town.”
This year, only 1.67 million tons of raw sugar were produced, nearly one million tons less than just a decade earlier; only 13,900 acres (5,625 hectares) in the state were set aside for pineapples in 2006 [the latest year for which pineapple stats are available) compared with a whopping 76,700 acres (31,039 hectares) in 1991.
The other crops vying for state land: flowers and nursery plants, macademia nuts, coffee, milk, algae, tomatoes, bananas and papaya.
Genetically modified food has been a source of debate since hitting the market in 1994. The E.U. had banned the imports of GM crops for 20 years, however in 2006 the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled that the ban violated international trade rules. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has deemed it safe and has so far declined to limit or block the burgeoning industry.
The extraordinary biodiversity (and, so, native plants competing for space and nutrients), along with the intractable problem of invasive species would seem to make Hawaii the least likely place to grow controversial crops, risking their uncontrollable spread. But scientists seed companies and some scientists believe say the benefits outweigh the risks of damage to the fragile ecosystem, most notably Hawaii’s crop-friendly moderate year-round climate—an average of 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Celsius)—and its open acreage. And over the past 10 years, Hawaii has become the locus for genetically modified crop field trials and a microcosm for the controversies over the safety of growing and eating transgenic food.
To date, Hawaii’s fertile soil has nourished more than 2,230 field trials of genetically modified (GM) crops, including corn, soybeans, cotton, potatoes, wheat, alfalfa, beets, rice, safflower, and sorghum—more than any other state. A total of 4,800 acres (1,940 hectares) of such crops now grow throughout the state, some 3,500 (1,415) of which are corn and soybeans, 1,000 acres (405 hectares) of which yield genetically engineered papaya, and the remaining 10 percent are field trials for new potential GM crops. “Hawaii is ideally suited for field trials and seed production, because of the climate and the ability to grow corn and soybeans 52 weeks a year,” says Cindy Goldstein, a spokesperson for Johnston, Ia.–based Pioneer Hi-Bred International (a subsidiary of DuPont) in Waimea, Kauai. Her company has been producing GM corn and soybeans in Hawaii since the mid-1990’s, when the FDA approved the crops for commercial sale.