Across the islands, we’re all waiting for the next step involving genetically modified organisms and food crops. This review period breaks into two areas: legal challenges and analysis/review.

The Hawaii County Council last month voted to allow lawyers from a pair of national advocacy groups to argue its case for a law restricting GMO use on the island. In November, U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Kurren ruled that state law pre-empts any county regulation on agricultural issues. That echoed a previous federal ruling on Kauai.  

The moratorium on GMO crops that Maui County voters approved last November has been challenged by Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences and others on much the same basis.

Molokai Mycogen GMO Tractor

Employees at Mycogen Seeds, an affiliate of Dow AgroSciences, lay irrigation lines in a field on Molokai last July.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

On the analysis and review side of the ledger, a group put together by the state Agriculture Department and Kauai County plans to serve as a fact-finding panel providing material for “evidence-based debate” on the controversial topic,  including determining whether there are health or environmental impacts from the use of pesticides applied to GMO crops.

Two of the largest economies in Asia are doing some increased study of their own about GMO food crops. The process may be time-consuming, but it’s worth noting that both China and India have been watching developments in other countries and are stepping up their own analysis of whether to go bigger with genetic engineering in food crops. Not surprisingly, the topic remains extremely controversial in both countries.

China has had a mixed experience with genetic engineering. In some areas it has been cautious — for example, turning back tons of shipments of U.S. corn a couple of years ago because of the presence of a strain of genetically modified corn produced by Syngenta. Then late last year, following a five-year review, China announced it would accept imports of that very sort of corn, known as MIR 162. That strain has been approved for planting in the United States since 2010.

As for large-scale domestic production of GMO food crops, China retains a more conservative approach than the United States. The government allows broad production of genetically modified cotton and papaya, but that’s it. It has conducted research on developing its own strains of genetically modified corn and rice, but the process has never gotten to the point of allowing commercial planting of the seeds.

At the same time, China imports not only GMO corn, but also millions of tons of genetically modified soybeans each year.

Just last month, China’s official Xinhua news agency announced that “more efforts will be put into genetically modified organism study and supervision, and the education of the public about GMO knowledge amid safety concerns.”

The same article quotes an official it calls “the deputy head of the office for the central leading group on agricultural work” as saying “GM technology is very promising.” But the piece goes on to say the same official acknowledges that “many Chinese still ‘turn pale’ at the mere mention of GMOs.”

India has also maintained a cautious attitude when it comes to genetically modified crops. The only one that is legal to plant on a commercial basis in India is cotton, which was introduced in 2002 and now makes up 95 percent of the country’s cotton crop.

As for large-scale domestic production of GMO food crops, China retains a more conservative approach than the United States.

An early backer of genetically modified cotton was the man who was then chief minister of the state of Gujarat and is now the prime minister of India: Narendra Modi. Last year, Modi’s government resumed field trials of a limited number of genetically modified food crops. With the cooperation of various state and local governments, testing is underway with strains of rice, chickpeas, corn, eggplant and mustard seed.

Just last month, India’s environment minister, Parkash Javadekar, told Reuters the field trials are important because “our mandate is to find out a scientific review, a scientific evaluation.”

There is another element to the exploration of GMOs that is undoubtedly prompting China and India to take a deeper dive into research and development. Both countries are cautious about becoming reliant on seeds patented by multinational corporations. In comments reported by the Wall Street Journal and others, President Xi Jinping has said China “cannot let foreign companies dominate the GMO market.”

By the way, if you’re curious about the region’s second-largest economy, there are no commercial GMO food crops in Japan, and according to a Library of Congress research paper, that’s “mainly because the general public is skeptical about the safety of GM crops.”  The article goes on to say that Japan is “one of the largest importers of GMO foods, though labeling is required if GM crops are used in food in certain cases.”

Since extensive research is being conducted about GMO food crops in two of Asia’s three largest economies, a non-corporate data base is growing. And given Hawaii’s experiences up to now with such crops, the Aloha State surely also has material to contribute that is not necessarily shrouded in patent protection.

So, while making allowances for competitive trade secrets, why not pool some basic research about GMOs and safety — and make it available to all in a professional, peer-reviewed journal? International cooperation is already at work in the preservation of plant seeds at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway; surely a similar effort for a common good could focus on research into the genetic engineering of food crops.

A successful attempt at such a venture could create further discussion about genetic engineering that builds on experience, rather than one driven by emotion or corporate profits.


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About the Author

  • Bill Dorman
    Bill Dorman is News Director at Hawaii Public Radio. He lived and worked in Asia for 10 years, covering stories from more than a dozen countries and territories for CNN and Bloomberg News. His broadcast experience also includes work in New York and Washington, D.C. His “Asia Minute” feature can be heard weekday mornings on HPR.