Spin Zone: GMOs

September, 2007

HECTOR VALENZUELA, Ph.D., Vegetable Crops Extension Specialist  UH-Manoa

Q: Are genetically modified crops good for Hawaii’s economy?

A: While genetically modified (GM) crops are grown globally on millions of acres, these crops offer no inherent benefit to the consumer, in terms of improved quality. However, the concentration of the seed supply, with one company accounting for 90 percent of the global GM crop acreage, does raise questions about consumer choice and food self-sufficiency. GM crop farmers no longer can save seed, which is vital to preserve our culture, biodiversity and food security.

Concerning societal costs, questions remain about potential health and environmental risks from the use of GM crops. If future studies reveal negative impacts from their consumption or from the large amounts of chemicals that are used to grow them, who will pay to fix these problems? For example, a study in the Journal of Environmental Management found that pineapple production on Oahu would not have been profitable if the plantations had accounted for the costs of treating the groundwater they contaminated with pesticides.

Another hidden cost to consumers is the $15 billion in federal and state subsidies that is provided every year to grow most GM crops. These include the crops grown by the seed industry in Hawaii, which has also benefited handsomely from the $300 million in so-called high-tech state tax incentive credits.

While the government handouts to the biotech industry challenge the view that GM crops are profitable, consumers, when given the choice, prefer to purchase non-GM food. Contrary to early rosy predictions, the papaya industry has been on a decline since the release of the GM papaya in 1998. Major export markets in Europe and Asia continue to reject GM crops. Given the increased popularity of the organic industry, which offers GM-free food, Hawaii should focus on growing high-end ecological products and not subsidized GM crops that require high levels of chemical inputs.

SARAH STYAN, Ph. D., President Hawaii Crop Improvement Association

A: Crop biotechnology has been one of the most rapidly accepted and utilized technologies in agriculture during the last century. Last year, more than 10 million farmers planted biotech crops on more than 200 million acres in 22 different countries. Hawaii’s seed-crop industry is growing the future of worldwide agriculture through the contribution the industry has in developing new products for farmers around the world.

The majority of crop biotechnology research in our Islands is conducted by Hawaii’s seed crop industry, which contributed over $144 million to our state in 2006.

This translates to $7 million in annual taxes, $53 million in annual labor income and more than 2,000 jobs. These jobs are typically in rural areas where there is little tourism or development. The seed industry also offers Hawaii’s students an opportunity to intern and work here in Hawaii rather than being forced to the Mainland to find suitable employment.

Local crop biotechnology research is also producing positive results. Papayas are the second-largest fruit crop in Hawaii with an estimated value of $18 million annually. In the early 1990s, the papaya industry in our Islands was nearly wiped out due to the papaya ring spot virus (PRSV). Biotechnology was used to develop papayas in Hawaii that are resistant to the effects of this virus. Biotech papayas now make up 58 percent of Hawaii’s papaya production.

Without biotechnology, Hawaii’s papaya industry would have suffered the same fate as it has elsewhere, having a crippling effect on the local economy and Hawaii’s agriculture industry as a whole. Crop biotechnology is making a positive economic contribution to Hawaii’s agriculture today and will be key to sustaining the Islands’ agriculture base in the future.

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