Good For You

With so many food choices available, Hawaii Business looks at what goes into what we eat

July, 2006

“When I ask students where their food comes from, they say, ‘The supermarket,’” says Carol Okada, plant quarantine branch manager for the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

These students aren’t alone. Even with raw sewage spills, controversy over taro patents and threats of an avian flu pandemic, studies show that local consumers are almost completely unaware of how their food is grown and what goes into it.

Most Hawaii consumers, like their national counterparts, don’t know that more than 70 percent of processed foods in the U.S. market contain at least one genetically modified (GM) ingredient. Most have never heard of GM foods, even though Hawaii’s papaya industry is more than 50 percent GM and the University of Hawaii’s patents on genetic modifications to taro are a source of deep controversy. In addition, many countries have banned GM foods.

Organic consumers and farmers, whose crops by definition cannot have any genetically modified organisms (GMOs), are the most vocal opponents of biotechnology, the industry behind GM. However, both organics and biotechnology are decades-old agricultural production methods, each with a distinct philosophy, history and industrial scale.

TWEAKING CONVENTION

Modern biotechnology began in the early 1970s, with the discovery of recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (rDNA) technology, and was designed to introduce beneficial genetic traits, such as pesticide resistance, and add nutritional value.

rDNA technology enables scientists to insert a genetic trait directly into a plant’s DNA and, over the past decade, most biotechnology applications have attempted to introduce traits that reduce pesticide use, increase herbicide resistance and increase crop yields to solve supply problems. Most GM foods, such as corn and soybeans, are grown on an industrial scale.

But GM food sales are hard to quantify, because, unlike organic foods, they are not labeled. A 2005 national consumer study commissioned by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology found only 41 percent of consumers nationwide are aware of GM foods. Hawaii consumer awareness is at 42 percent, according to preliminary data from a recent statewide survey of 550 consumers conducted by Sabry Shehata, professor of agricultural economics at the University of Hawaii.

Most consumers, even if they are aware, do not understand biotechnology. Although the idea of using genes to cultivate certain traits in a plant began with conventional breeding in the 1860s, with Gregor Mendel’s laws of heredity, biotechnology’s method is very different. The final product, supporters argue, is the same.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), GM crops are considered to have “substantial equivalence” to conventional crops. There is no reason then, biotechnology supporters argue, to distinguish GM foods from conventional foods.

INPUTS AND OUTPUTS

Organic foods distinguish themselves from conventional foods mainly through production methods, which are designed on principle to protect the environment, soil and biodiversity. Organic standards prohibit the use of irradiation, sewage sludge and genetic modification.

The organic movement began in the 1920s, with the concept of interrelationship among plants, soil, livestock and people, and grew in reaction to industrialized farming’s use of pesticides in the 1940s.

Based on growing consumer and producer demands for standards, certification programs were created, but it wasn’t until 2002 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) implemented national organic standards on organic production and processing to strictly regulate the use of chemicals and other agricultural inputs.

Organic farmers manage pests and other growing problems through various methods, such as: biological, using beneficial pests and parasites; cultural, choosing strategic planting and harvesting dates; mechanical, working with the native soil; and chemical, using organically acceptable pesticides, as defined by the USDA.
Most organic farmers in the U.S., and all local organic farmers, are extremely small producers. Currently, demand for organic foods outweighs supply — local organic farmers say they could sell five to 10 times their current production — but organic production accounted for only .001 percent of Hawaii’s overall market value for agricultural products in 2002, according to USDA data.Organic foods have always been a niche market, only recently moving onto mainstream shelves in local supermarkets, Wal-Mart and Costco. Organic food sales have grown at a rapid 20 percent per year nationwide over the past decade, but the category still accounted for less than 2 percent of total food sales in 2003.

Hawaii already imports 80 percent of all food, and the percentage of organic product imports is potentially even higher. Down to Earth CEO Mark Fergusson said the local natural foods chain imports at least 80 percent of its organic produce from the Mainland. “We have seen a significant increase in demand since the 1980s, but the supply side is very limited,” he said.

With Whole Foods Market, a national natural foods chain, scheduled to enter the Hawaii market in 2008, local organic supply will grow even tighter — and prices will go up.

Hawaii consumers are long inured to high prices and nationwide consumers are used to paying a premium for organic foods. But even with labeling, they are not necessarily educated on what they are buying. “A lot of people don’t understand organics,” Fergusson said. “Once we start talking about attributes, such as chemical free, people become more interested.”

Organic foods are not risk free, though. There are risks of pathogen contamination from manure-based fertilizers and fungal diseases, according to Carl Evensen, chair and extension specialist in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management at the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) at the University of Hawaii – Manoa.

Farmers’ decisions are based on economics, necessity and beliefs. Organic farmers are more concerned about biotechnology than consumers, because they worry a GM crop will “contaminate” (or cross-pollinate) their organic crop, which by definition must be GMO free.

However, many conventional farmers support biotechnology as a growing method. Richard Ha, owner of Hamakua Springs on the Big Island, would like to see the development of a GM banana to fight the banana bunchy-top virus (BBTV), which conventional means have not successfully prevented.

“At some point, we have to decide whether we live with BBTV or not, but we’ll also have to live with a real low supply of bananas,” he says.

Ha is experimenting with other growing methods, but has been unable to make organics work economically.

“With our tomatoes, we deliberately chose hydroponic [a non-soil growing method] over organic to reduce pesticide use,” he says. “With organic, you cannot grow on a large enough scale to make a dent in the local supply of produce. If we felt we could do organic, we would do it. We’re trying, but it’s an economic thing. It can’t just be a philosophy.”

Susan Matsushima, president of Alluvion, a local wholesale nursery, has been involved in agricultural issues in the state for years. She is pro-GMO as a way to help farmers remain viable. “In order to feed the masses, I would rather have a process more scientific, so we don’t need pesticides,” Matsushima says. “The most important thing is we need to do things safely.”

CONSUMERS WANT LABELING

Both the Pew study and Shehata’s preliminary findings show consumers overwhelmingly favor labeling of biotechnology products, with support by 90 percent of consumers nationwide and 80 percent statewide (more than 90 percent on Kauai and Maui).

“The most important finding in my study is labeling,” said Shehata. “Consumers want labeling and want to understand why the biotechnology industry is fighting against labeling. Their question is: ‘Why are they fighting it if the technology is kosher?’”

Many anti-GMO organizations believe biotechnology companies are trying to put their products on the market surreptitiously. However, the labeling issue is more complex.

Because the FDA considers GM products to have “substantial equivalence,” the agency only requires labeling if the GMO substantially changes the nutritional content or introduces a new allergen. The FDA also considers GM foods on the market to be safe, and the Pew study shows the majority of Americans trust the FDA. Biotechnology companies undergo a voluntary consultative process, in which the company submits data to petition that a GM crop no longer requires regulatory oversight and states that it is free from risk under current standards.
The biotechnology industry has actively fought against mandatory labeling, including a $5.5 million campaign to help defeat a proposed labeling law in Oregon in 2002. Biotechnology proponents argue that labeling is proscribed for food safety reasons, such as quality, nutrition and health hazards, not for production methods. However, organic certification requirements and labeling standards are predominantly focused on production methods, not safety.Multiple scientific groups, such as the American Medical Association, also support the safety of biotechnology. The World Health Organization (WHO) released an international study in 2005, stating that GM foods had undergone risk assessments and were unlikely to present health risks any more than conventional foods. The report did recommend ongoing testing on long-term effects and assessment of ethical and religious issues.

Studies show labeling would increase costs by up to 10 percent. Interestingly, consumer support for labeling dropped as prices rose. According to Shehata’s preliminary data, even though 73 percent of Hawaii consumers were willing to purchase GM foods, only 30 percent were willing to buy them if the cost was 10 percent higher.

In comparison, organic products command up to a 50 percent price premium and are the fastest growing agricultural category in the U.S.

Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit public interest and environmental advocacy group, believes biotechnology companies have ignored consumer attitudes. “They are the only purveyor of a new technology that is not selling us on the innovation of that technology,” he said. “The only way it’s accepted is by consumers not knowing that it’s happening.”

Biotechnology representatives say they are trying to change that perception. The Hawaii Crop Improvement Association (HCIA), a local biotechnology trade organization, has an outreach and education group to help legislators and consumers better understand biotechnology. According to Paul Koehler, president of HCIA and the Hawaii business and communications affairs manager for the largest biotechnology company, Monsanto, HCIA’s outreach and education group, gives presentations to local community organizations, legislators and students. Monsanto also provides community tours of its Maui facilities based on consumer interest.

CONSUMERS SUPPORT RESEARCH AND RISK

Globally, governments and consumers continue to demand more transparency from the biotechnology industry. More than 22 countries plan to institute some form of mandatory labeling, and major countries, including those in the European Union, have banned many GM products, although those bans are currently under review. Some American companies, such as Frito Lay refuse to purchase GM products.

Even with the controversy surrounding biotechnology, the 2005 WHO report found that consumers did not demand “zero risk” from biotechnology products. The Pew study shows 65 percent of consumers favor research into GM foods, especially if the purpose is to enhance health and safety. More than 70 percent of consumers favor research into using biotechnology to reduce the use of pesticides. The preliminary Hawaii findings show local consumers are willing to purchase GM foods if the genetic modification reduces the use of pesticides (60 percent) or improves nutrition (65 percent).

Risk assessment also plays a large role in understanding the value of biotechnology. Ania Wieczorek, an assistant professor in biotechnology at CTAHR, notes that all agricultural products have risks.

“All crops we eat contain toxins, but the level of toxins is very low, based on the amount we consume,” Wieczorek says. “On one side, biotechnology crops show a lot of potential. On the other hand, they have a small risk of a negative impact. At what point do you decide what is acceptable? The consumer will have to decide.”

Food safety and the true benefits of biotechnology remain sticking points among proponents and foes. Biotechnology opponents fear weeds will acquire herbicide resistance and need even more chemical spraying. Worldwide, 72 percent of commercial GM crops have an herbicide-tolerant trait, according to the WHO report. That Monsanto, the top biotechnology company, is also one of the largest producers of herbicide has only increased opponents’ distrust.

Conflicting statistics confuse the issue further. HCIA cites lowered pesticide use, down by 380 million pounds globally from 1996 to 2004, as a key benefit to biotechnology. In contrast, a 2004 study by Charles M. Benbrook, a scientist and expert in pesticide regulatory law, reported pesticide use in the U.S. had increased 122 million pounds from 1996 to 2004.

However, in the end, it is consumers, informed or not, who will determine which foods get bought and eaten.

Shehata says, “When consumers are educated, they are the king.”

Hawaii’s Rainbow Connection

All commercial papayas grown in the U.S. are grown in Hawaii. More than 50 percent of them are genetically modified to resist the papaya ring virus, which devastated the local papaya industry in the early 1990s.

However, Japan, a major export market for Hawaiian papaya, does not accept genetically modified (GM) papayas. To solve the problem, local farmers adopted an “identity preservation protocol” to ensure papayas sold in the Japanese market did not contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The protocol essentially serves as a voluntary labeling standard, with strict certification processes and testing.

Loren Mochida, owner of Tropical Hawaiian Products on the Big Island, has farmed both conventional and GM papayas since 1998 and has only had to destroy two trees that tested “false positive” for GMOs. Using geographic isolation, with defined perimeters and berms to prevent cross-pollination between papaya trees, he actually surrounds his conventional papaya tree plantings with GM papaya plantings to reduce the chance of ring virus infecting his conventional crop.

Mochida says farming conventional papayas is difficult for economic reasons. “Growers are reluctant to plant Kapoho [conventional papaya], because they make more money with Rainbow [GM papaya], because with Rainbow they don’t lose trees and can keep the trees producing longer,” he says. “We are working with the Japanese government to allow Rainbow into their markets. I hope one of these days I can just plant transgenic [GM].”

In the past two years, the commodities branch of Hawaii’s Department of Agriculture has rejected “way less than 1 percent” of conventional papayas shipped to Japan, according to Darrel Kohara, acting Hawaii district supervisor for the Commodities Branch. “Our last rejection was over a year-and-a-half ago, and it was due to an applicant not following procedure,” he says.

However, commercial papayas are the only ones monitored by such a program. GM papayas are unlabeled in stores and home gardeners unknowingly using these seeds are planting GM papaya.

“Hawaii’s GM papayas are a real threat to organic papaya growers,” says Nancy Redfeather, a local organic farmer and GMO-free advocate. “Once a GM crop is introduced into a regional area, it’s only a matter of time until you can no longer grow the crop with the genetic certainty you had before.

—KF

 

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