Monsanto just announced its purchase of thousands of acres in Central Oahu to test genetically modified (GM) crops, and protests of the Legislature's refusal to hear bills prohibiting genetic engineering of taro and coffee have been in the news. The newspapers publish a steady stream of letters from industry employees suggesting that anyone unwilling to give the industry free reign is an ignorant fear-monger mindlessly opposed to everything "biotech," from aspirin to stem-cell research. Time for a reality check. Here are some facts — you decide.
In the past six months, three federal courts have ruled that the USDA broke environmental laws when allowing Monsanto and others to grow GM crops that could contaminate other crops or harm the environment, including corn and sugar cane engineered to produce powerful drugs in their cells. Hawaii's Judge J. Michael Seabright found USDA acted in "utter disregard" of the law.
During the past year, the U.S. long-grain rice crop was discovered contaminated by GM varieties not approved for human consumption, resulting in rice import bans by Japan, rejection of contaminated shipments by the European Union, and lawsuits to recover huge losses to rice farmers. The California Rice Commission has called for a moratorium on planting GM rice in California. Thousands of farmers in the United States and Canada have been investigated and/or sued by Monsanto for saving seeds with patented GMO traits. Farmers have paid huge fines even when their crops were inadvertently contaminated with Monsanto's traits. On the other hand, Monsanto refuses to take any responsibility for contamination of others' crops.
Consumers want as much organic produce as they can get; it's the fastest-growing agricultural segment. But since the genetically engineered papaya was introduced, to the hosannas of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, it has become virtually impossible to grow organic papaya reliably in most parts of Hawaii; the GM trees cross-pollinate other trees, and GM seeds are spread everywhere by birds and people. Even UH's papaya seed stock is contaminated.
GM papayas receive much lower prices than conventional or organic papaya, and the export markets to Japan and Korea, where consumers refuse to buy GM fruit, have been seriously damaged. Should Kona coffee farmers assume they have nothing to worry about from GM coffee field testing?
Claims that GM crops will enhance yield or improve nutrition are completely speculative, even after years of research and development; 99.9 percent of all GM crops worldwide are corn, soy, canola or cotton designed to be resistant to herbicides, produce their own pesticides, or both. Monsanto developed crops resistant to its RoundUp herbicide so it could sell more RoundUp, which farmers can now dump on their fields without killing their crop. Sales of RoundUp skyrocketed six-fold from 1992 to 2002, producing RoundUp-resistant "superweeds" infesting 2 million acres of U.S. farmland.
To kill RoundUp-resistant weeds, farmers are turning to even more toxic herbicides, such as 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange produced by, you guessed it, Monsanto.
Pesticide-producing crops are not resistant to many corn and cotton insect pests, including the boll weevil, mirids, plant bugs and stink bugs. Farmers continue to spray insecticides to control them, and overall pesticide usage on such crops climbs back up after an initial drop.
Claims that GM crops have been "proven safe" or are "rigorously tested" are simply false. The EPA regulates pesticide-producing crops, but requires no feeding studies with the GM crop; nor does the FDA require any such proof.
Scientific studies of GM foods in animals have shown signs of organ damage and raise legitimate concerns about allergies, immuno-suppression, and toxicity. Because the industry has fought requirements that GM foods be labeled so consumers can make their own choices, it's impossible for consumers or doctors to track illnesses back to their sources. Yet 70 percent of all processed foods in supermarkets now contain unlabeled GM ingredients.
About a year ago, the USDA's own inspector general issued a scathing audit criticizing USDA for failing to adequately regulate field tests of GM crops.
The USDA was unaware of the location of many field trial sites and failed to conduct required inspections. A long and ever-growing list of contamination incidents has amply demonstrated that no field protocols have succeeded in reliably containing experimental GM crops, like the ones Monsanto plans to grow in Kunia.
Want to know more about exactly what crops Monsanto will be growing, or where? Too bad! Monsanto claims it's "confidential" — that is, none of your business. Oh, and the Hawaii legislators who refuse to hear bills seeking to restrict genetic engineering of taro, coffee, or anything else? Monsanto says it's none of their business, either. We're all Monsanto's guinea pigs now.
Paul H. Achitoff is managing attorney in Hawaii for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.