She’s baaack, and it’s not good news for science literacy, farmers and food-minded Hawaiians.
I’m referring to Vandana Shiva, the Indian anti-GMO crusader who kicked off a five-day blitz through Hawaii with a talk-and-music fest at the Capitol Building on Wednesday.
It’s a grand tour, marked by private fund-raising pitches to wealthy locals and wannabees from the mainland who view the limited role of biotechnological research in modern agriculture as an anathema–Hawaii is a world center because of its favorable climate.
Campaigns like this tour aimed at shutting down nursery centers, most based in Maui, could send the seed giants fleeing to Puerto Rico or the Philippines, costing Hawaii hundreds of millions of dollars and hurting the cause for sustainability in the process.
Shiva’s tour caps off with a Sunday afternoon rally at the Seabury Theatre on Maui with headlined demands for what the prime organizer–Washington, DC-based Center for Food Safety (CFS)–calls “home rule.” While polls show a majority of Maui farmers and residents oppose the effort to shut down the seed nurseries and research labs, anyone but diehard opponents of modern agriculture will be personae non grata at this rally.
Shiva is reprising her 2013 tour, also led by CFS, which oversees scheduling of her $40,000-a-pop promotional speeches. A Brahmin who professes to stand with women and the poor, Shiva maintains her goal is “giving voice to those who want their agriculture free of poison and GMOs.”
On her arrival two years ago, Shiva was an exotic unknown–an “eco warrior goddess” and a “rock star in the global battle over genetically modified seeds,” in the words of journalist Bill Moyers. Here in Hawaii, she was treated as a foreign dignitary. No one dared criticize her.
Now, two years later, as more details of her philosophy and background have emerged, a darker picture has emerged. She leverages her claim as an expert at every stop. “I am scientist… a Quantum Physicist,” she claimed, until recently on her website and in many books, a claim repeated by journalists, even prominent. But she’s not. Her degree was in humanities–she’s a philosopher of science, but has no professional hard science background or writings.
To her followers? Details, Details.
Hawaii County set itself apart from much of the rest of the state in December by effectively banning the large biotech seed companies that have become a major, though controversial, part of Hawaii agriculture.
But with a ban also on the outdoor testing of transgenic crops, can the Big Island, home to genetically modified papaya, still be a place for genetic research?
Six months later, the answer might be clearly no for some researchers while a bit hazy for others.
Because of the law, Russell Nagata, Hawaii County administrator for the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, said his staff will not pursue genetic engineering.
“It will prevent us from using biotech as a solution” to agricultural issues, he said following a panel discussion on genetic modification Thursday evening.
“It forces us to look at it in a different manner. It may be slow, it may not be as effective.”
Scientists interviewed say growing modified crops, that are still under development, in open fields is necessary to test their effectiveness.
While they say they take steps to prevent the spread of genes, including the removal of plants before flowering, critics of genetic modification believe outdoor testing presents too much risk. They also question the approval process.
“We are looking at the precautionary principle,” said Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille during the panel discussion sponsored by the Hilo chapter of the American Association of University Women. Wille introduced the bill restricting the use of transgenic crops.
Under the county’s law, testing can occur but it must be done indoors.
At the time the bill was adopted, Nagata said his office was not conducting any genetic research.
For those with projects already in progress, the law might provide less certainty.
Michael Shintaku, a plant pathologist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, said he is continuing his research on creating lettuce resistant to the tomato spotted wilt virus but is unsure of whether he can get it approved with the current restrictions.
We feel that genetic engineering is an important and crucial technology. Ignorance and myths surrounding this field hinders advancement at best and harms at worst. It’s especially a concern to us as vegans for these reasons:
- Animal testing: Insisting on unfounded safety testing leads to more animals being harmed in order to perform this testing.
- Animal alternatives: GM technology can help create alternatives to animal products. For example, insulin used to be obtained from slaughtered animals; now it is manufactured by genetically modified bacteria. It could also be possible to use GM technology to replace animal foods. Cheese has been difficult to mock, and the lack of acceptable vegan cheese analogues could be a barrier for many potential vegans.
- Nutrition & Health: GM technology can benefit vegans by creating plants rich in nutrients vegans lack, such as vitamin B12 and DHA. This would make it easier for people to go and stay vegan. Recently, CSIRO scientists have been enabling canola plants to produce DHA. People who are vegan need DHA, and synthetic DHA can help save the lives of fish, who are often used as a source of omega-3 fatty acids. People are animals too, and there are many in dire need of help. GM technology could help bring essential nutrients to starving populations, and GM foods could even be used as vehicles for vaccine delivery.
- Environment: Creating plants that use fewer pesticides and fertilizers will help us strive toward a sustainable agriculture that’s less detrimental to all life on this planet. Fewer insects would be killed, less runoff will poison fish, and no- or low-till agriculture will save the lives of ground-dwelling animals.
There are many in the vegan community co-opting the vegan cause with conspiratorial thinking and junk information on GMO. The best antidote to this is good critical thinking. Please be sure the source for your information is well-qualified and scientific.
Monday, March 17 marked the beginning of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association (HCIA)/Hawaii Chamber “Biotech Week” in Honolulu. Well-attended by employees of the seed companies and many farmers at the state capital and elected officials, the event reminded everyone of the importance of biotechnology in the agricultural community of Hawaii. During my time there, I was able to hear first-hand accounts of the role that biotech has played in the survival of the papaya industry and the impact of the current Hawaii County ban of GM crops on papaya farmers and ranchers.
The Rainbow Papaya Story is still very much familiar to not only the papaya famers of Hawaii but to the general public as well. In the 1950s, a devastating papaya ringspot virus spread on island of Oahu causing severe economic loses. Papaya production then had to move to the Puna area of the Big Island in the 1960s, but, by 1997, the virus had almost destroyed the industry. Production of Hawaii’s fifth largest crop fell by nearly 40 percent, farmers were going out of business, and Hawaii’s once $17 million papaya industry was struggling to survive.
Then biotechnology becomes the island’s lucky charm. In 1997, the U.S. government concluded its regulatory review of the first genetically engineered papaya variety named Rainbow, which includes a gene that makes the papaya plants resistant to the ringspot virus. Commercialized in 1998, the genetic improvement had not only begun to show promise for the Hawaii papaya industry, but production actually began to return to levels near where they were before the papaya ringspot virus invaded.
Howard Green thought he was helping farmers, like himself, sell more of their products directly to customers.
Instead, the bill he offered to lawmakers has raised concerns the state Legislature may again be trying to undermine county regulations on genetically modified crops and pesticides for the second time this session.
The legislation Green, an Oahu farmer and lawyer, said he wrote changes only a few words in a section on agriculture districts in the Hawaii Revised Statutes.
But the addition of “without further limitations or restrictions” in a sentence regarding allowed uses has some worried it could significantly limit the ability of counties to regulate agriculture, and pass laws, as Hawaii and Kauai counties did last year, addressing the use of modified crops and chemicals in agriculture.
Former Mayor Harry Kim, a critic of attempts by the Legislature to limit county home rule, said the companion legislation, Senate Bill 2777 and House Bill 2467, would have significant implications.
“I think a lot of people will be very surprised and maybe even stunned by it,” he said.
Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, called it a “sneaky … cynical attempt to take away home rule,” adding he has received email from constituents concerned about the legislation.
“I think the (genetically modified organism), pesticide issue is the motivation for it,”
LIHUE, Hawaii (AP) — The Kauai County Council has authorized spending $75,000 to hire attorneys to defend a new law regulating the use of pesticides and genetically modified crops by large agricultural businesses.
The 5-0 council vote, taken Wednesday with two members absent, will allow the county attorney to hire outside legal services to answer a lawsuit filed in federal court last month by Syngenta Seeds, DuPont Pioneer and Agrigenetics Inc., which does business as Dow AgroSciences.
County officials will select special counsel from a pre-qualified list of 17 attorneys, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.
The county had initially planned to rely on donated services, and several firms had previously offered pro bono legal help.
But the county said it received only one response to its formal request for pro bono services. The county rejected that attorney’s submission, partly because of a lack of relevant qualifications.
Friday is the deadline for the county to notify the court of its legal representation.
Some council members expressed concern the initial allocation would fall short.
"Is $75,000 sufficient for the Syngenta v. County of Kauai case?" Councilman Mel Rapozo asked First Deputy Attorney Jennifer Winn, The Garden Island (http://bit.ly/1gAiVbt ) reported. "I can tell you, just looking at what we went through last week, that is going to be used up in a week or a month."
Rapozo said the council should create a budget to prevent outside attorneys from extending the county’s costs.
In the lawsuit, the companies claim the new law is "fatally flawed" and pre-empted by state and federal laws that regulate pesticides and genetically modified organisms. They contend that the ordinance will increase risks of commercial espionage, vandalism and misappropriation of trade secrets, and inhibit farming activities.
BASF, a fourth seed company that operates on Kauai, is not part of the lawsuit. A company representative has said it is still reviewing the situation and exploring its options.
The GMO debate is considered one of the most controversial and confusing issues facing our state. Supporters say the technology behind genetically modified organisms is feeding the world at a time when the population keeps exploding and space to farm is getting scarcer. Opponents say it poses health and environmental risks – the full scope of which is unknown, because its application is too new.
A genetically modified organism is a living thing, like the corn grown on over 2,365 acres in Kunia by Monsanto, which has been altered to produce a desired trait.
"A good comparison is to an iPhone. The iPhone is like the basic corn – putting more genes in or making it GMO is like adding additional apps into that phone, into that corn. It makes it more valuable and a better tool for farmers to produce their crop," described Fred Perlak, Ph.D., Monsanto Hawai’i Research & Business Ops Vice President.
Perlak says GMO corn can be engineered to resist insects and herbicides and tolerate droughts.
"Ethanol production, high fructose corn syrup, feed for cattle, fed for pigs for chickens – all that comes from this particular kind of corn," explained Perlak.
According to experts, approximately 90% of all corn grown in North America is GMO – along with cotton, canola and soy.
SEATTLE — A Washington state ballot measure requiring mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods has been rejected.
The campaign over Initiative 522 has been one of the costliest initiative fights in state history, drawing millions of dollars from out of state. The measure was failing 46 percent to 54 percent after more ballots were counted Wednesday evening, with the “yes” side trailing by almost 100,000 votes.
“We’re delighted with the vote tonight,” said Dana Bieber, a spokeswoman for the No on 522 campaign. Voters “gave a clear message. The more they looked at the initiative the less they liked it.”
A popular weapon used by those critical of agricultural biotechnology is to claim that there has been little to no evaluation of the safety of GM crops and there is no scientific consensus on this issue. Those claims are simply not true.
NOTE: This piece was co-written with a writer at the Genetic Literacy Project, JoAnna Wendel.
“The science just hasn’t been done.”
– Charles Benbrook, organic researcher, Washington State University.
“There is no credible evidence that GMO foods are safe to eat.”
– David Schubert, Salk Institute of Biological Studies
“[The] research [on GMOs] is scant…. Whether they’re killing us slowly— contributing to long-term, chronic maladies—remains anyone’s guess.”
– Tom Philpott, Mother Jones
“Genetically modified (GM) foods should be a concern for those who suffer from food allergies because they are not tested….”
The claim that genetically engineered crops are ‘understudied’—the meme represented in the quotes highlighted above—has become a staple of opponents of crop biotechnology, especially activist journalists. Anti-GMO campaigners, including many organic supporters, assert time and again that genetically modified crops have not been safety tested or that the research done to date on the health or environmental impact of GMOs has “all” been done by the companies that produce the seeds. Therefore, they claim, consumers are taking a ‘leap of faith’ in concluding that they face no harm from consuming foods made with genetically modified ingredients.
That is false.