No paradise for pharming

Lawsuit seeking information on Hawaii test fields is just the beginning, activists say

Jul 30, 2003
Charles Choi(cqchoi@nasw.org)

Environmental groups are suing for public access to Hawaii state agricultural records concerning field tests of genetically modified (GM) crops. Attorneys expect that the legal action represents the beginning of further activism in Hawaii, now the leading US hotspot for agricultural biotechnology trials.

Attorney Isaac Moriwake of the environmentalist law firm Earthjustice told The Scientist that federal records show 14 permits for biopharming, or growing drugs with genetically altered plants, in Hawaii were issued between 1999 and 2002. However, the permits do not specify where test plots are, which genes are undergoing alteration, or what kind of substance is being produced.

"Among concerns we have with these field tests is they use food crops, and they take place in open air. There are also unique ecosystems in Hawaii with a great concentration of endangered species that could be affected if plants get out of field trial areas," said Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Center for Food Safety, a national watchdog group in Washington, D.C. Mendelson cited past incidents of possible food crop contamination by pharmed crops grown by ProdiGene in the mainland United States.

Hawaii's balmy winters allow firms to grow crops in open-air field trials year-round, said Biotechnology Industry Organization spokeswoman Lisa Dry. Experiments are being conducted there on corn, tobacco, soy, papaya, cotton, rice, sunflowers, and wheat by Dow, Monsanto, DuPont, ProdiGene, Syngenta, and other biotech giants, as well as by academic institutions such as the University of Arizona and Iowa State University.

"Biotechnology saved the $17 million papaya industry in Hawaii," Dry added, noting that biotech research developed a papaya resistant to the ringspot virus that was destroying the industry.

Local concern about GM crops grew in Hawaii after the US Environmental Protection Agency cited biotech leaders Dow AgroSciences of Indiana and Pioneer Hi-Bred International of Iowa for not following regulations in their Hawaii plantings to segregate GM corn from other corn. Both settled with the government in December 2002 without admitting wrongdoing. Dow paid a fine of $8800 and Pioneer paid $9900.

On May 23, the Center for Food Safety asked the Hawaii Department of Agriculture for all documents regarding ongoing field tests in Hawaii, but the department refused. On July 23, Earthjustice filed suit against the Circuit Court of Hawaii, First Circuit, on behalf of the Center for Food Safety, to compel the state to provide public access to details about the field tests.

"The law requires state agencies to grant the public open access to its records," Moriwake said.

The US Department of Agriculture declined to comment on litigation affecting state agencies or itself. A spokeswoman for the Hawaii Department of Agriculture said, "The State Attorney General's Office is reviewing thelawsuit and it would be inappropriate for the department to comment at this time."

"We want to make sure the state department of agriculture has a rigorous review of field trials. This could reveal Hawaii hasn't been real vigilant, just rubber-stamping trials," Mendelson said.

Dry sharply disagreed. "There is stringent federal and local oversight of field trials, including those for plant-made pharmaceuticals. It is a slur against the regulatory agencies to suggest they fail to carry out their duties," she said.

"These issues are going to become of ever greater concern to national organizations and people living in Hawaii," Moriwake said. "One of the big purposes of this suit is to kick-start a larger investigation and campaign to increase public awareness. First we need to gain access to these records."