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.
70% of Monsanto’s corn crop in Kunia is GMO, the other 30% is grown conventionally. Officials say they use herbicides to combat weeds and fungicides for disease control.
"We treat them whether they’re GMO or non-GMO the same. There are no increases in pesticides on GMO versus non-GMO corn here," said Perlak, explaining that’s one of the biggest misconceptions Monsanto faces.
Another top concern is the safety of GMO products, which was a key element of discussion during Tuesday night’s Capitol hearing on Senate bill 2736. The proposal, which advanced out of the Senate’s Health committee, would require labeling for any food or raw agricultural commodity that contains a genetically engineered material, or was produced with a genetically engineered material, bought and sold in Hawai’i.
"Genetically modified materials contain poisonous pesticides as a part of its genetic makeup. It is designed to reduce the need for additional herbicides. The quantities of this poison has various reactions and side effects that could cause harmful or deadly results to sensitive people," said Juanita Brown Kawamoto, the Food and Farm Sustainability subcommittee Chair of the Environmental Caucus of the Democratic Party, during her testimony.
"For many of us the science of bio-engineering is in its infancy and the eventual long-term consequences of genetic engineering both to human health and to the environment cannot be predicted," described Bart Dame of the Progressive Democrats of Hawai’i.
"The U.S. Food and Drug Administration rigorously tests all foods that are grown for food consumption and have not found any difference in the safety of genetically engineered foods and other foods," said Scott Enright, the chairperson of the state Department of Agriculture, who testified against the measure, before adding voluntary labeling of non-GMO products is already happening on store shelves and suggested any additional regulations should come directly from the FDA.
Monsanto says it supports voluntary labeling, but questions the necessity of mandating it.
"As a company we sell seed to farmers, all our bags of seed are labeled. Farmers know exactly what they’re buying when they buy our seeds – what traits are in there and how they’re labeled," explained Perlak.
"The general consensus of the scientific community is increasingly becoming that there are no risks – no differences associated with GMO food versus non-GMO food. If people want to do that as a matter of preference, that should be voluntary. People should be allowed to do that. If General Mills wants to label Cheerios, great. If Whole Foods wants to label, great. The marketplace will dictate whether they’re successful and whether that’s important and we support that," said Perlak.
Whole Food Market Kailua issued this statement:
"At Whole Foods Market, we believe that shoppers have a right to know what’s in their food. That’s why we’ve made a commitment to provide full GMO transparency. By 2018, all products in our U.S. And Canadian stores* must be labeled to indicate if they contain genetically modified organisms so that our shoppers can be empowered to make informed decisions about the products that are best for them. With this commitment, we are the first national grocery chain to set a deadline for full GMO transparency."
*Whole Foods Market has 7 stores in the U.K., which already requires labeling for foods that intentionally contain or are produced from GMO ingredients.
"GMO and non-GMO taste the same and have no inherent risks. They are equivalent to each other. They are the same in every characteristic that can be measured," said Perlak.
But many opponents vehemently disagree. Critics often cite DDT use as an example of scientists not always being able to correctly assess health and environmental risks correctly.
Babes Against Biotech is a Hawai’i-based political non-profit that has been a very vocal opponent of GMOs.
"Hawai’i is home to more than 5,000 open air genetic and experimental pesticide field tests and the GMO seed industry against the majority will of residents. We are being poisoned in paradise, this is GMO Ground Zero," announces their website: babesagainstbiotech.org
During her testimony Tuesday at the Capitol, Babes Against Biotech President, Nomi Carmona, said the United States should follow suit of other countries that require some form of GMO labeling.
In recent months, thousands have rallied on Kaua’i and Hawai’i Island, where county lawmakers have passed respective GMO bans. Hawai’i Island County Council passed a bill forbidding biotech companies from operating on the island and prohibits all new genetically modified organisms, with the exception of the papaya industry. The Kaua’i County Council’s ban requires the disclosure of pesticides and GMOs and implements buffer zones near schools, homes, medical facilities, and waterways.
Monsanto says the measures are indicative of a misunderstanding of what seed companies do and a fear of that unknown.
"What we’re trying to do is improve agriculture. We’re trying to produce more using less in a more sustainable way. Our goal is to increase the yield of corn, cotton and soy doubled by 2030 using less materials – less water, less land, less overall labor," Perlak explained.
Perlak says Monsanto is making an effort to be a better neighbor and engage more in the public discussion about GMO through their new website: monsantohawaii.com and with tours on their property that are now open to the public.
"We’re open to the dialogue to talk about what it is we do. Food is such an important part of our overall lives we sometimes take it for granted. Farmers don’t," Perlak said.