That joke came to mind the other day when I read about a collection of anti-biotech groups suing the Department of Agriculture over important crop research that is now being conducted in Hawaii. It’s not the first lawsuit they’ve filed, nor will it be their last. But each one is fundamentally misguided.
For years, Hawaii has served as an important site for agricultural research in the United States. Hawaii’s agriculture sector and its important research have reinforced the essential role the islands play – not only for Americans but for people throughout the world.
The tropical island environment is unique in the United States. Nowhere else can scientists conduct open-field research on plant breeding throughout the year. As a result, there have been more than 4,000 trials of genetically enhanced crops in the state.
Hawaii’s advantages don’t end with the climate. To be sure, there are other places in the world where year-round research is possible. They just aren’t in the United States. Innovators need to have their ideas protected, and only Hawaii combines the benefits of an ideal environment with the American system of intellectual property rights that underpin so many advances in agricultural research.
What’s more, the federal government demands massive safeguards for any biotech project. If researchers want to test a new variety of biotech corn, for instance, they must first embark on a thorough review of everything modern science tells us about a plant’s biology and its genetics. Then they must conduct a series of internal tests to learn more about what further experimentation might reveal. Next come greenhouse tests that allow the crops to grow but also keep them sealed off from the outside world.
When these steps are complete–in a process that can take several years–scientists are allowed to try open-air field tests. Even then, they must comply with lots of restrictions. In Hawaii, for instance, some permits require that the field be surrounded by a thick line of trees that serve as windbreaks, to prevent pollen from escaping.
When biotech crops move into fields, they occasionally attract interest from the media. There’s no problem with this, except that everything in the “news” is supposed to seem “new.” By the time the public hears about these plants for the first time–generally because they’re showing promising commercial value–they’ve actually compiled long and detailed histories. They’re new only to the people who haven’t been studying them for years, or in my case, planting them on my farm.
Biotechnology, in fact, is becoming downright ordinary. Biotech enhanced plant breeding contributes to thousands of consumer products, from beer to cheese. The same is true for about one-third of all our drugs.
And here’s where the latest lawsuit in Hawaii enters the picture. The plaintiffs have targeted permitted trials for crops that may one day help us produce wonder drugs that would make a significant difference in the lives of patients who need it. I know a lot about this process because I’ve grown them on my own farm in Iowa.
We have not even begun to tap the remarkable potential of these plants. Suffice it to say that some of humanity’s worst afflictions may one day be treated because these special crops make it possible.
So I’m always astonished to hear the enemies of biotechnology assert that only farmers benefit from genetic enhancement. I’ll gladly admit that farmers reap tremendous rewards–our yields are up and our fields are weed free. But it’s silly to suggest that only farmers gain. Of all people, Hawaiians must know this–a few years ago, the state’s $19 million papaya industry was saved from destruction because biotechnology figured out a way to protect papaya trees from the deadly ringspot virus.
Did farmers benefit from this? They most certainly did. But so did all the people whose jobs depend on these papayas, from those who work on the farms to those who package and ship the fruits. And consumers, too–at least if they like the taste of papayas.
When biotechnology flourishes, everybody will win–except perhaps the opportunistic lawyers who continue to attack the science that makes it all possible.