Over the past year in Hawaii, County Council bills were drafted in response to community concerns about the planting of experimental genetically modified (GM) crops and their inherent pesticide use around the islands. In response, the agrochemical industry brought a number of ‘hired guns‘ from out-of-state to paint a rosier picture of the GMO Industry. Local academics also joined the bandwagon claiming a consensus about the safety of pesticides and GM crops on the islands.

In most cases the “hired guns” and the UH professors portrayed their positions as independent scientists. Thus, to the casual observer these “GMO experts” were providing an impartial perspective about the safety of GMOs. For instance at a recent “GMO Summit” held on the Kohala Coast, the three out-of state speakers claimed impartiality. By the end of the day however, the speakers admitted that their engagements had indeed been sponsored by the agrochemical industry.

Similarly, all of the Hawaii-based researchers that eagerly defend the safety of GM crops, have potential undisclosed conflicts of interest.

For instance recent commentaries by UH Professors Michael Shintaku and by Susan Miyasaka, failed to disclose that they have or are conducting research with GM crops, a potential professional conflict of interest. Similarly, retired Professor Dennis Gonsalves, who has traveled the world to promote the GM papaya, co-holds several GM patents with Monsanto. Overall these “product defense specialists” have made undocumented and unfounded statements with respect to increased quality, economic and social benefits, increased nutrition, increased yields, sustainability, safety, and reduced pesticide use, attributed to GM crops.

To make their case that a consensus on safety exists, these researchers have relied on secondary, even tertiary sources. Furthermore, the sources that are cited are organizations with a track record of conflict of interest–with recommendations that are more likely to placate big business or sponsoring governments. A literature review published in the journal Environment International countered generalized statements of safety by stating that, “the risk assessment of GM foods in general, and crops in particular for human nutrition and health, has not been systematically performed as indicated in the scientific literature.”

The fact is that many questions remain about the health, social, and environmental risks from the production of GM crops. Examples of well-documented adverse environmental effects include the development of super-weeds and super-bugs, and the widespread contamination of non-GM crops by GM pollen or seed.

Concerning health risks, editors for the Lancet, one of the most respected international medical journals, wrote that “the motive of these promoters is profit, not altruism.” The editors added that “Governments should never have allowed these products into the food chain without insisting on rigorous testing for effects on health.” Health risks cited in a follow-up Lancet commentary included “allergenicity; gene transfer, especially of antibiotic-resistant genes from GM foods to cells or bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract; and “outcrossing”, or the movement of genes from GM plants into conventional crops, posing indirect threats to food safety and security.”

The Ecological Society of America has also acknowledged potential environmental risks such as “(1) creating new or more vigorous pests and pathogens; (2) exacerbating the effects of existing pests through hybridization with related transgenic organisms; (3) harm to nontarget species, such as soil organisms, non-pest insects, birds, and other animals; (4) disruption of biotic communities, including agroecosystems; and (5) irreparable loss or changes in species diversity or genetic diversity within species.”

To document the evidence of risk I have put together summary reports that provide a) a list of refereed publications that have documented adverse health effects from GM crops on several body organs, based on animal studies; and b) a list of refereed publications that have documented adverse health effects on humans, from the exposure to pesticides which are applied to grow GM crops.

About the author: Hector Valenzuela is a Professor and Crop Specialist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. He has graduate degrees in crop production from the University of Florida and Washington State University. A supporter of small family farms and of organic and ecological-based farming systems, Dr. Valenzuela has raised questions about the safety and science of crop biotechnology.

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