Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Musings: Stifling Opposition

The sky was swirled with dark and light shades of gray, and the mountains were weighed down under a thick band of steel, when Koko and I went walking this morning. Along the eastern edges, a few streaks of shocking pink broke up the monochrome.

The wind was blowing — it’s that time of year when all the mango, lychee and avocado flowers have to hang on for dear life — and it was chilly enough for me to encourage Koko to keep up a brisk pace, which meant limited sniffing, until we ran into farmer Jerry, whom I hadn’t seen for a while, and stopped to chat along the road.

It seems Sandra Kunimoto, director of the state Department of Agriculture, is coming to Kauai today to chat with some local farmers, Jerry among them, and our new mayor, who ran on an ag booster platform , although I haven’t heard much on that topic since he’s taken office. Except, of course, that his Administration is moving ahead with the Kilauea ag park, even though anyone who farms there will have to use county water, an expensive proposition, and folks in the know had advised selling that land and creating another ag park elsewhere, with cheaper water and neighbors who are more receptive to agricultural endeavors. Apparently the folks who built big fancy homes on the ag land surrounding the Kilauea ag park, but don’t actually raise any crops, aren’t keen about the usual side effects of farming, like dust and noise.

Speaking of farming, I learned yesterday that the GMO issue — specifically HB 1663, which would prohibit the development, testing, propagation, release, importation, planting, or growing of genetically modified taro in Hawaii, and is scheduled for a hearing tomorrow morning — has driven a deep wedge between Kauai taro growers, who produce about 80 percent of the state’s crop.

In an attempt to stifle opposition to GMO taro, the Kauai Taro Growers Assn. moved last month to restrict membership to growers who have a general excise license and pull 22 bags of taro a week. [Correx: It's 22 bags a year.] In other words, the group now represents the large commercial growers, most of whom aren’t even Hawaiian.

“We’re not trying to exclude anyone,” KTGA President Rodney Haraguchi reportedly told those attending a recent meeting, even as the group moved to shut out all the backyard and subsistence farmers — many of whom are Hawaiian — and organizations like Hui Makana O Makaainana, which comprises North Shore Hawaiian families working to restore and farm the taro loi in Haena State Park. Under their curator agreement with the state, they’re prohibited from selling taro.

The move is yet more evidence that commercial growers are bent on monopolizing the Islands’ most traditional food source. So what do they care about the cultural ramifications of genetically modifying the plant from which Hawaiians believe they’re descended? I’ll give you a hint: they don’t. Their interests are solely economic, and despite all the talk about feeding the hungry masses, that’s exactly what’s driving the GMO industry, too.

A report ”Who Benefits from GMO Crops?” by Friends of the Earth and Center for Food Safety uncovered a few interesting nuggets, including:

• Not a single GM crop on the market is engineered for enhanced nutrition, increased yield potential, drought-tolerance, or other attractive traits touted by the biotech industry.

• Four of every five acres of GM crops worldwide are Monsanto's Roundup Ready varieties, designed specifically for use with glyphosate, the weed-killing chemical that Monsanto sells under the name of Roundup. Weed-killers, or herbicides, are the largest class of pesticides.

• U.S. government data reveal a huge 15-fold increase in the use of glyphosate on soybeans, corn and cotton in the U.S. from 1994 to 2005, driven by adoption of Roundup Ready versions of these crops.

• Rising glyphosate use has spawned a growing epidemic of weeds resistant to the chemical in the U.S., Argentina and Brazil. Weed scientists have reported glyphosate-resistant weeds infesting 2.4 million acres in the U.S. alone.

• Roundup Ready soybeans, the world's most widely planted GM crop, have 6% lower yield than conventional soy, according to University of Nebraska researchers.

Now before you yip about the biases of the groups involved in compiling this report, just remember that nearly all the existing studies on GMOs have been done by the industry. And why? Because there’s no funding for independent research. And Dr. Ignacio Chapela, whose research resulted in findings that the industry didn’t like, had to fight to keep his job at UC Berkeley in the face of intense pressure by Monsanto to oust him.

What Dr. Chapela found is that pollen from genetically modified corn was drifting into Mexico and contaminating heirloom corn crops there, disproving the industry’s claim that its pollen stays put. And that sort of contamination, which has also occurred with papaya here in Hawaii, is exactly what some local taro growers fear.

Meanwhile, I was fascinated to discover that the dairy industry’s quest to increase milk yield, which was the rationale behind the genetically engineered bovine growth hormone that is now meeting with intense consumer resistance, can be accomplished without paying big money and causing the cows to suffer painful side effects, like inflamed and swollen teats.

A researcher with Newcastle University has found that simply by giving a cow a name and treating her as an individual, farmers can increase their annual milk yield by almost 500 pints.

“Just as people respond better to the personal touch, cows also feel happier and more relaxed if they are given a bit more one-to-one attention,” explains Dr [Catherine] Douglas, who works in the School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development at Newcastle University.

"What our study shows is what many good, caring farmers have long since believed.

“By placing more importance on the individual, such as calling a cow by her name or interacting with the animal more as it grows up, we can not only improve the animal's welfare and her perception of humans, but also increase milk production."

And that kind of thinking — the antithesis of the factory farm mentality currently behind our food production — is exactly what the fight over GMOs is all about.


Anonymous said...

"nearly all the existing studies on GMOs have been done by the industry"

-- cant say ive done a full accounting, but learned and objective academic papers on the subject are not hard to find

and it is interesting stuff. a casual review of some of them, for example, blows away claims such as:

"Not a single GM crop on the market is engineered for enhanced nutrition, increased yield potential, drought-tolerance, or other attractive traits touted by the biotech industry"

those same writings are also quick to point out that tweaking a plant gene here and there to fight off a given bug or not die from a given chemical is relatively easy (ergo why we see much of this)

but - messing with the plant to pump it full of vitamins, etc and give the plants all of these great qualities...that is very hard, you have to mess with scores of genes...it takes a lot of time, money etc

so the gm people have been just taking the low hanging fruit to date

Joan Conrow said...

And who do you think is paying for the research behind those "learned and objective academic papers?"

Anonymous said...

1. many of those papers i cite, among other things, accurately note the current and potential "cons" of gm crops (and, no disrespect intended, do so far more accurately and rationally than 95% of the ~ "anti gm" people on kauai, for example). so that they are critical in part suggests, on its face, some degree of objectivity

2. i would imagine that it is pretty well known that not every single work product out of academia has a corporate sponsor. there are, for example, foundational underwriters (like the ford foundation), gov grant monies, and university general endowment funds. this is of course not to suggest the schools dont actively court and get big biz money

3. it reflects a certain something when a reader unilaterally rejects a given writing when it makes note of an item the reader does not agree with

4. but there are gm crops and r-n-d just a few miles from many people on kauai, so the heightened interest in the subject here is understandable. as such, it will be interesting to see the reaction (or lack thereof) when the local hospitals start doing allotta gene therapy

Anonymous said...

Not to mention that the incredible belief that humans descended from a veggie is being used to hold up scientific endevor.

That's worse than the "sacred mountian" ploy to stifle astronomical development of Mauna Kea.


Anonymous said...

belief that humans descended from a veggie

Funny. There could be a "Scopes Taro Trial."

Anonymous said...

Kauai ='s Dover Area School District

Anonymous said...

Taro is a crop with such profound cultural significance that it is deserving of special recognition and special treatment.

I can see an opportunity for pollen drift issues: alien pollen fertilizes a feral kalo away from a regular farm lo'i, it seeds and the seed grows, and later someone collects a huli from the plant and plants it for commercial use. Now the alien DNA is in poi.

That might not be a bad thing from a health standpoint or it might be, but it could create an unacceptable cultural conflict.

Anonymous said...

---so the gm people have been just taking the low hanging fruit to date---

which coincidentally allows them to sell more chemicals.....

Anonymous said...

"which coincidentally allows them to sell more chemicals....."

ya thats about my (novice) understanding too, as to much or most of what is commercially available today from those groups

personally, im pulling for the drought resistant GMs...get those to work, add good farming practices, some solar powered state-of-the-art drip irrigation...could help tons of people in africa

realistically tho, id be content with the corps just pushing the ball forward some on the r-n-d. unlike corn or soy, the africa-specific food stuffs are not real profitable for the corps, so who is to say if they will ever mess w/ them (the africa crops). NGO's would prob have to do some of the heavy lifting there

March 3, 2009 9:47 AM
March 3, 2009 12:11 PM

Anonymous said...

Some time ago I read about a gmo rice engineered with stiffer stalks so that less grain would be lost by being submerged in water.