GENET archive


PLANTS: GE crop research on Hawaii lacks real success

------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------
TITLE:  Genetically modified crops rooted in funding
SOURCE: The Honolulu Advertiser, USA
        files attached: M171679430.GIF.gif from Honolulu Advertiser;
        GEPapayaHawaiiFig2.gif & GEPapayaHawaiiFig3.gif from Greenpeace
AUTHOR: Sean Hao
DATE:   30.04.2007

GENET/HM: Despite the widespread planting of GE papaya on Hawaii, both
papaya acreage and fresh production went down continously. Planting of GE
papaya did not show any effect on the decline of papaya farming.
Figures No.2 & 3 extracted from:
THE FAILURE OF GE PAPAYA IN HAWAII, Greenpeace International, May 2006

Genetically modified crops rooted in funding

The University of Hawai'i is conducting genetically modified crop
research on bananas, tomatoes, petunias and lettuce in an effort to
develop hardier, disease-resistant plants.

Researchers at UH's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources
also are trying to develop sugar cane that's genetically modified to
produce a vaccine to protect against rotavirus -- a viral infection that
can cause severe diarrhea and vomiting in young children.

The projects have been going on for several years, but have not been
widely publicized. Other ongoing transgenic crop research at UH is being
conducted on pineapple, orchids, anthuriums, taro, papaya and limes.

Genetically modified, or transgenic, crops are plants that have been
altered by the transfer of genetic material from another species.

UH's drive to develop new transgenic crops is driven by economics, said
Stephen Ferreira, an assistant specialist for plant and environmental
protection sciences at UH.

"There's no question at a federal level ... more funds are being
funneled or being targeted to some of these kinds of areas," Ferreira
said. "Ten years ago you could hardly find money to do transgenic work."
But because the technology is successful and has impact, funds are now
available for transgenic research.

UH research into genetically modified papaya resulted in the development
of a ringspot-virus resistant papaya, which has helped manage the impact
of the virus.

However, UH's work on papaya and taro has caused a backlash among
environmentalists and others. Cultural concerns about UH's work on
genetically modified Hawaiian taro varieties ultimately forced the
university to abandon that effort.

Despite the availability of research money, some scientists are
reluctant to go into GMO work because of backlash of environmental and
cultural concerns, said C.Y. Hu, associate dean and associate director
for research at the UH CTAHR. However, Hu could not provide details such
as the number of researchers working on genetically modified crop
research or the amount of money spent.

"It's actually going down because we have a lot of faculty saying
there's no point in doing this," he said.

That could ultimately hurt Hawai'i farmers, should new diseases surface
locally, Hu said.

"If you don't want us to do that, we can accept that," he said. "But if
we don't work on this and a disease comes in, it's going to wipe you out."

Apart from papaya, UH's remaining genetic crop research is being
conducted in greenhouses or laboratories rather than in open fields,
which lowers the risk of environmental exposure.

Opponents of genetic crop research and genetically modified food contend
that not enough is known about the long-term impact of such products.
They point out that many countries, including Japan, won't import
transgenic papaya and that transgenic crops could cross-pollinate with
nontransgenic plants and taint Hawai'i's image as a clean and natural

So far UH's efforts have met with mixed success. For example, Hawai'i
papaya growers now can grow transgenic papayas despite the presence of
the damaging ringspot virus. However, genetically engineered papayas
have yet to generate the market acceptance and higher sales prices that
nongenetically modified papaya command in some markets. And a UH effort
launched in 1995 to design a pineapple resistant to nematodes and
mealybugs has yet to yield a marketable fruit.

Other ongoing research projects include transgenic virus-resistant
lettuce, tomatoes and petunias and fungal resistant Chinese taro. The
university also partners with Hawaii Agriculture Research Center on an
effort to develop transgenic sugar cane that's resistant to the yellow
leaf virus.

Now it wants to develop a better banana -- one that's engineered to
resist infection from the bunchy top virus. Plants infected by the
banana bunchy top virus suffer severely stunted growth and produce
deformed fruit, or in advanced stages produce no fruit. The disease has
been present in Hawai'i since the 1990s.
[see M171679430.GIF.gif]

The project suffered a setback when UH researchers were unable to
license genetically altered banana trees from researchers in Australia.
As a result, UH researchers now have to develop their own virus-
resistant banana, which "is years away," said Hu. "There's been some
success, but it takes time."

Meanwhile, critics contend the $1.5 million spent so far on transgenic
banana research could be better spent developing nongenetic techniques
for managing the bunchy top virus.

"I think it's a big waste of money," said Sarah Sullivan, director for
Hawaii Seed, an advocate for sustainable agriculture and a Hawai'i
that's free of genetically modified organisms. "It's a good example of
how unsuccessful GMO research has been."

Others complain that the university is focusing too much effort on
genetic crop research rather than supporting alternative means of
addressing pesky bugs. Hector Valenzuela, a UH vegetable extension
specialist, said the state could have eliminated the ringspot virus by
razing all papaya trees for a year or two.

"It would have been very difficult for farmers but it's a sacrifice for
the next 50 years" of papaya growth, he said. "My position is there are
many other approaches (that) could have been looked at."

Instead of razing trees, papaya growers opted to plant GMO papayas,
which have not been a panacea.

"It's difficult because farmers are in a survival mode," Valenzuela
said. "Of course they're going to take" a transgenic solution for ringspot.

Transgenic papaya proponents, which include some UH researchers and
farmers, contend that there is no way to control the ringspot or bunchy
top viruses without genetic engineering technology.

Cutting down all papaya trees "was the first recommendation that was
made, but the decision made by growers was the economic hit was too
costly to bear," said Ferreira, the UH assistant specialist. "These
sustainable or alternative approaches have not been ignored. They've
been studied. There's nothing new they have to offer."

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