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REGULATION & FOOD: GMO label ‘very important‘ for Hawai'i consumers

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SOURCE: The Honolulu Advertiser, USA

AUTHOR: Sean Hao


DATE:   12.07.2007

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Hawai’i consumers are fairly evenly divided over the safety of genetically modified foods such as locally grown papaya, according to a poll by University of Hawai’i researchers. However, consumers overwhelmingly support labeling of such foods, the survey found.

Genetically modified, or transgenic, crops are plants that have been altered by the transfer of genetic material from another species. In the case of papayas the fruit is modified to be resistant to a virus that causes unsightly blemishes and lower yields.

Genetic modification of foods is becoming more widespread: Up to 75 percent of processed food on store shelves contains genetically modified ingredients, according to some estimates.

Government officials consider such crops safe and do not require labeling. As a result products such as transgenic papayas typically are indistinguishable from non-genetically modified foods on store shelves. However, the lack of labeling may run counter to consumer sentiments.

According to the recently released survey, 72 percent of residents said it was ”very important” that genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, be labeled, with another 13 percent calling it ”somewhat important.” At the same time the survey showed a general lack of knowledge among residents about genetically modified foods. Fully 64 percent of respondents said they were either very little or not at all informed about transgenic foods. Only 8 percent of respondents said they were well informed.

When it came to the safety of genetically modified foods, 36 percent of those surveyed said the products were extremely or somewhat risky, vs. 34 percent who said genetically modified foods were somewhat or extremely safe. Twenty-two percent of respondents said they did not know whether genetically modified food was safe or not.

UH professor Sabry Shehata, who was principal author of the report, said the findings support a move to adopt genetically modified food labeling coupled with consumer education initiatives. The results were generally comparable with prior research into U.S. consumer attitudes about transgenic foods, according to the report.

”Consumer education is very low,” Shehata said. ”Labeling should be considered as a way to educate consumers about it.”

In the United States, there are no requirements that transgenic food be labeled as such. Proponents for labeling contend such a move will allow scientists to better track any long-term effects of genetically modified foods and allow consumers to avoid such foods if they wish. However, opponents contend that labeling will cost too much and raise unsubstantiated food safety fears.

”It’s just like you’re red-flagging it,” said O’ahu papaya farmer Ken Kamiya, who’s also president of the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association. ”I don’t see a need for labeling. There is no question or doubt people want a good product. The question of (whether it’s genetically modified) doesn’t really enter into it.”

Honaunau organic farmer Melanie Bondera disagreed.

”Every public survey always supports labeling,” said Bondera, a board member for Hawaii Seed, an advocate for sustainable agriculture and a Hawai’i free of GMOs. ”People want choice.”

Hawai’i’s most popularly cultivated transgenic papaya is called Rainbow, and it represented 53 percent of papaya grown in Hawai’i, according to the study. The non-genetically modified Kapoho variety accounted for 30 percent of papaya acreage in 2005. Most of the papaya sold locally is genetically modified while non-genetically modified papayas are exported to countries such as Japan, which currently do not accept transgenic papayas.

The introduction of transgenic papaya by UH researchers in 1998 is widely credited with saving Hawai’i’s papaya industry. However, genetically modified papaya introduced other problems by raising the risk of cross-pollination with non-genetically modified and organic papayas. The modified papayas also have yet to generate the market acceptance and higher sales prices that non-genetically modified papayas command.

The survey of 538 Hawai’i residents was conducted between February and June of 2006. It has a margin of error of 5 percentage points.



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