When people think of Hawaii, they probably imagine beautiful sunsets over white sand beaches, bountiful waves, colorful clothing, and spasmodic volcanos. For the average person, what probably doesn’t leap to mind when thinking about Hawaii is the food they eat and Hawaii’s agriculture industry. It should, however, because Hawaii is at the forefront of modern, high-output agriculture: biotech farming.
Salvation after Sugar Collapse
Biotech agricultural companies took advantage of the collapse of Hawaii’s sugar industry in the 1980s to buy land and introduce genetically modified crops for research and ultimately commercial seed sale. Hawaii’s climate makes it ideal for biotech experimentation and new varietal development because it allows biotech companies to get three or four planting seasons in every year.
From tiny acorns, mighty oaks grow, and so it has been with Hawaii’s seed industry. Companies including DuPont, Pioneer, Syngenta, Dow, BASF, and Monsanto all operate in Hawaii. From humble beginnings, the seed industry, at more than $243 million annually, is the largest segment of Hawaii’s agricultural sector. In 2010, the agriculture companies exported more than 9.7 million pounds of seed, half of which was genetically modified. The seed industry alone employs approximately 1,400 people.
Seed companies point out genetically enhanced crops both provide employment and keep land in agriculture at a time when fertile farmland elsewhere is being developed for other uses.
Biotech’s Environmental Benefits
Environmental activists have raised a variety of objections to the planting of biotech crops in Hawaii, including that they are harmful to human health and encourage the indiscriminate use of chemicals. The answer to these charges in Hawaii, as elsewhere, seems to be, “where’s the evidence?”
Despite hundreds of studies, none have found legitimate evidence of harm to public health from genetically modified crops that have gone into commercial production. Instead, genetically modified crops are improving human nutrition by increasing crop yields and making food less expensive.
Similarly, genetically modified crops are improving the environment. Improving crop yields means less land is developed for food production. Also, some genetic modifications allow farmers to reduce the amount of pesticides needed—the plants are engineered to either enhance their own natural defenses against insects and weeds or to use defenses imported from other subspecies or species. A second type of modification enables a crop to withstand higher doses of certain pesticides when such pesticides are needed for crop protection.
“Study after study shows that the development of biotech crops has improved the environmental performance in agriculture,” said Greg Conko, executive director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “It has reduced the need to spray chemical insecticides and reduced the amount of older, more environmentally harmful herbicides, replacing their use with more benign, less toxic herbicides with limited persistence in the environment.”
“Genetic modification has enhanced food production in the United States and throughout the world while simultaneously improving environmental conditions,” said Jay Lehr, science director for the Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News. “Genetic modification breakthroughs are among the greatest scientific advances of the past century.”
More Viable Papaya Crop
In Hawaii, seed crops are not the only things that are being bioengineered. Along with corn (which is the largest crop), wheat, soybean, sorghum, and canola are also benefiting from genetic modification. In addition, in the late 1980s, the University of Hawaii began developing a papaya strain resistant to the Papaya Ringspot Virus. The new, genetically modified papaya plants are no longer susceptible to infection, allowing farmers to cultivate the fruit even when the historically debilitating virus is widespread.
Hawaiian farmers began commercially growing the first virus-resistant papayas in 1999. Bioengineered papayas now cover approximately 2,400 acres, three quarters of the total Hawaiian papaya crop.
These papayas have been approved for consumption both in the United States and in Canada, and several Asian countries are developing genetically modified papaya varieties resistant to their local virus strains.
What happens in Hawaii does not stay in Hawaii, it would seem.
H. Sterling Burnett (Sterling.Burnett@ncpa.org ) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.