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GMO's: Have you done your homework?

 MG 5756CElevitchDoes food and GMO biotechnology need any public oversight?The GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) controversy continues to dominate the news for our local agriculture's future. Hawai'i Island's farmers, both small and large, are actively engaged in this debate, as are our County Council, the University of Hawai'i, biotech companies, and some wholesalers and retailers of our entire local food system.

How well do you understand the issues? How much do you know, and how much is guesswork or knee-jerk reaction? Are you applying your critical thinking skills to the arguments from both sides, or are your feet more-or-less mindlessly planted in the concrete of your fellow-travelers?

The technology of Genetic Engineering (biotechnology) has progressed very rapidly over the past 30 years and has created a very complex and intertwined network of biological, social, economic, environmental, and political issues. Public policy and legislation to deal with these issues has lagged behind the technological changes. That is one of the great challenges currently facing Hawai'i County government and the whole state.

Very simply, genetic engineering has the capacity to change the genetic structure and traits of any plant or animal species – or cell of a species – by mixing it with a gene or genes from another animal  or plant species. Although the corporations doing genetic engineering make grand claims for making a better future for the world, critics claim that they may actually be creating a future full of tragic, unforeseen problems.

Genetic engineering is currently used by pharmaceutical companies for medicines to treat illness and health problems; it is used by chemical companies to mitigate against agricultural pests, to improve marketability of agricultural crops, and to develop seeds that are pest or pesticide resistant; and it may be used by both in the future to alter the genetic makeup of aquatic species and domestic animals, and even human beings.

The current controversy here on Hawai'i Island only addresses the issue of the agricultural use of biotechnology and GMOs – though it may have implications for the broad application of biotechnology in our society.

Below, this state-wide agricultural issue has been broken down into four categories that we each should do our best to research and understand. For each category several important questions are posed that we, as island residents, growers, specialists, stakeholders, and food consumers, would do well to answer for ourselves, and for future generations to the best of our current ability.

1. Public Policy – De we need it?

IMG 0325-2Should life forms, including humans, be viewed as commodities in the biotechnological marketplace?Does food and GMO biotechnology need any public oversight? If so, why? If not, why not? Does it currently have any voluntary or mandatory regulation? Have any legislative regulations – at federal, state or county levels -- been put in place for food biotechnology? If so, what are they, and are they adequate? If not, why not? Can we trust our governments to protect us from possible negative consequences of GMOs and biotechnology? Since political power is heavily influenced by money, follow the money: which groups and how much money does each side of the debate have access to?

2. Benefits vs. Risks

Here are major claims of GMO supporters: GMO crops can end world hunger; will help small farmers; will increase world economic growth; will reduce agricultural chemical use; will increase biodiversity; will increase crop yields; will reduce poverty and malnutrition; farming with GMO crops is sustainable; GMO foods are safe to eat; GMO foods improve nutrition and health; GMO crops and foods complement conventional and organic farming (see http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Biotechnology-infographic_7.29.13-clean.pdf ). How many of these do you believe, and why?

Here are major claims by GMO critics: genetic engineering is imprecise, unpredictable, and poses special risks; GMO food regulation is non-existent or weak; studies show GMO foods can be toxic or allergenic; no GMO crop is more nutritious than its non-GMO counterpart; GMO pesticides pose major health hazards; GMO crops do not improve yields; herbicides used with GMO crops reduce biodiversity; GMO crops contaminate non-GMO and organic crops; GMO crops are irrelevant to feeding the world; natural and hybrid breeding are more effective than genetic engineering (see http://www.earthopensource.org/files/pdfs/GMO_Myths_and_Truths/GMO_Myths_and_Truths_1.3.pdf ). How many of these do you believe, and why?

Do your homework, research the sources of these claims, and develop a very informed opinion.

3. Ethics

Is changing the genetic structure of life species for reasons of utility and profit ("economic growth") an intelligent and wise choice? Should life forms, including humans, be viewed as commodities in the biotechnological marketplace? Do we want to entrust the genetic makeup of any living thing into the hands of the private property of a few large corporations, even though those corporations may (or may not) have our best interests at heart? Is it possible to minimize ethical concerns and reduce environmental risks while keeping the benefits?

4. Certainty vs Uncertainty

Some of the questions and claims in this report have fairly clear cut answers. Others do not. This is not unusual with new technologies that create controversy and debate. How much uncertainty about our future agriculture can our island tolerate, and how much is wise to implement?

Not many of the important questions noted above about GMOs and food biotechnology have clear-cut, agreed-upon answers. To which specific questions is there a clear consensus about the answers? Of the questions where there is not a clear consensus, would any particular answer create an irreversible situation? Would the irreversible situation create an uncertain, possibly harmful future; or a certain beneficial future? If the future consequences of GMOs are uncertain in terms of benefits and risks, how do we create public policy – legislation – that minimizes the uncertain risks while maximizing the uncertain benefits?

"An informed citizenry is the foundation of democracy."  Let the Hawai'i County Council, especially the councilman or councilwoman from your district, know where you stand and why.

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Pedro Tama is Communications Director for the Hawai'i Homegrown Food Network.

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