Prove your humanity

First a deadly disease tried to destroy Hawaii’s papaya industry. It failed, thank goodness. But now a few politicians want to pick up where the ringspot virus left off–and they just might succeed in wiping out one of our state’s most promising tools to benefit Hawaii’s diversified agriculture producers.

Last month, the Hawaii County Council heard a lot of misinformation about agricultural biotechnology and did little to seek out science-based information when it voted unanimously to ban the planting of genetically modified coffee and taro.

What does this have to do with papayas? Everything. Let me explain.

Without biotechnology, there would be very little papaya grown on the Big Island today, Hawaii’s largest growing area for papaya, or in parts of Oahu and Maui.

Until the 1980s, papayas flourished in Hawaii. Farmers grew several varieties to feed the locals as well as ship to the continental United States and abroad. Then the ringspot virus invaded Oahu and moved to the Big Island where the disease began laying waste to our papaya trees. The leaves crumpled. The fruit withered. The disease spread to the other islands, too. It was a disaster both for farmers who grow papayas and for consumers who enjoy eating this nutritious fruit.

Fortunately, Dr. Dennis Gonsalves began to study the problem. At the time, he was a scientist at Cornell. (He has since become director of the U.S. Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo, on the Big Island.) It took him 14 years to come up with a solution–and in 1998, we farmers finally had healthy trees with fruit.

Gonsalves figured out how to use the genetic portion of the ringspot virus to “inoculate” papayas against the disease. Our papaya industry, which was on the brink of collapse, experienced a sudden turnaround. We owe it all to the ingenuity of Gonsalves and the remarkable promise of innovative biotechnology.

Yet scientific research into protecting crops from the ravages of nature is never done. We see new diseases and insect pests come to our islands every week. There may come a time when papayas–or other crops–will need biotechnology as a crop breeding tool once again.

That’s why this new ban of GM coffee and taro is so misguided. Neither of these crops is in danger of extinction, and perhaps they never will be. Yet this type of law can have a terrible chilling effect. It threatens to have long-term negative consequences for Hawaii’s diversified agriculture and backyard farmers, no matter what they grow.

If Hawaii’s politicians are going to start banishing essential GM crops, then why will other innovative technology businesses want to locate in our state? They’ll see Hawaii as a state where businesses that rely on science and technology are not allowed to thrive and succeed.

And why will the next Dennis Gonsalves want to devote any portion of his or her career to researching Hawaii’s agriculture problems when the solutions may be placed off limits by politicians?

Worst of all, the politicians are responding to unrealistic fears peddled by special-interest groups that have an ideological mindset to ignore sound science and responsible biotechnology solutions.

One of the leading anti-biotech groups is the woefully misnamed Center for Food Safety. It recently claimed that “consumers may suffer allergic reactions due to unexpected toxins in GE foods.”

That’s like saying it may snow in downtown Honolulu next summer. No consumer has ever suffered an allergic reaction to a biotech-enhanced papaya or any other kind of food. Most people seem to know this instinctively. In a recent survey by the International Food Information Council, only 1 percent of Americans listed biotechnology as a “food safety issue” that concerned them.

The stakes are high. My state’s economy depends heavily on tourism. When families start to pinch pennies, as many are now, the first type of thing they cut from their budgets is–you guessed it–vacations to Hawaii. In this time of financial crisis, Hawaii shouldn’t hobble its homegrown industries.

Instead of limiting the technologies available to Hawaii’s farmers, politicians should work to enable our success. At the very least, they should let us have the freedom to decide what we’ll plant and harvest: organic coffee beans, genetically modified papayas, or whatever.

The good news is Mayor Harry Kim relied on his years of experience of what is best for the Big Island and had the courage to stand up for policy that benefits Hawaii’s farmers by vetoing the County Councils ban. The bad news is that the council appears poised to override Mayor Kim’s action. “It’s what the farmers want us to do,” said Councilman Bob Jacobson.

That’s not exactly true. I’m a farmer and I don’t want him to vote to override—because I want to make sure Hawaiian agriculture can continue to thrive.

Ken Kamiya has grown papaya in Hawaii for over 35 years. The “Kamiya” papaya is named in recognition of his work in the industry. Mr. Kamiya participated in the 2007 Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer to Farmer Roundtable.