LIHUE, Hawaii — Kauai is an island of perpetual summer, where the soil is red, fields are green and rain showers come and go more frequently than sunrise and sunset.
It’s a land of tourism and agriculture. Snorkeling, surfing and helicopter rides intermingle with small farms, cattle ranches and research farms. All is overlaid with a rural ambiance of thousands of chickens that run everywhere since their emancipation by Hurricane Iniki in 1992.
Tourists heading to Wailua Falls, one of the island’s prime attractions, pass corn fields three miles northwest of Kauai’s county seat, Lihue.
The corn stalks look no different than any other, but they get much more attention.
Workers place brown paper bags over tassels to catch pollen that will be used to hand pollinate another plot nearby. Each stalk is tagged with its own barcode. Paper punches are used to take cuttings of leaves that are freeze dried and shipped to laboratories in North Carolina for analysis.
“We will know that in row 16, plant 48 doesn’t have the genetic make-up we want and yank it out,” says Mark Phillipson, lead for corporate external relations and formerly general manager of Syngenta Hawaii.
This is corn of controversy — corn that’s been genetically modified to exhibit a particular trait such as resistance to pests.
As the cultivation and use of genetically modified crops — also called genetically modified organisms, or GMOs — continues to generate debate on the U.S. mainland, the controversy has spilled over to Hawaii. This is where many of the GMO seeds planted around the world are tested on sprawling research farms.
At 61, Phillipson has spent nine years with Syngenta in Hawaii. He previously worked in the chicken industry on the mainland and has a bachelor’s degree in agriculture business from California State Polytechnic University-Pomona and a master’s degree in health professional education from Western University of Health Sciences, also in Pomona.
At the end of June, he completed a two-year term as president of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, a trade group representing the five global companies that conduct GMO and pesticide research and development in Hawaii.
“There are ample independent studies that show GMO is safe and 30 national and worldwide scientific organizations such as the American Academy of Sciences, American Medical Association and World Health Organization that have done so,” Phillipson says. “Even the pope has a scientific advisory group that deems it safe.”
In 2013, 97 million acres of corn were planted in the U.S. and more than 90 percent of it was genetically modified, Phillipson said.
The companies have tested GMO plants in Hawaii for 18 years, but opposition has surfaced in recent years over health concerns, worries that the crops might cross pollinate with other crops and that the research is driving increased testing of pesticides, says JoAnn Yukimura, a Kauai County councilwoman. She voted for the county pesticide and GMO restrictions that were overturned by a federal judge on Aug. 25.
For more than 40 years major seed and chemical companies have tested crop varieties, seeds, pesticides and herbicides in Hawaii because its climate allows several crops per year. Since 1996, that work has included testing of genetically modified soybeans, canola and rice, but mainly corn.
Five companies — Syngenta, Monsanto, Dupont-Pioneer, Dow AgriSciences and BASF — do their research on the islands of Kauai, Oahu, Maui and Molokai. The companies collectively employ more than 2,000 people on the islands, and the industry’s economic impact is valued at $230 million annually, Phillipson says. The companies do about $15 billion in annual worldwide sales of seed and more in crop protection pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.
Syngenta alone earns $4 billion on its corn, vegetable and flower seeds and $10 billion in crop protection, Phillipson says.
Headquartered in Basel, Switzerland, Syngenta has 27,000 employees worldwide and grows seed in 90 countries. It is the only company doing research and development in Hawaii that is not North America-based.
Most of the companies do GMO and pesticide research on thousands of acres of former sugar plantations on the southwestern side of Kauai.
Focus switching to nutrition
Syngenta has 3,000 acres there and 1,000 acres near Lihue.
“We can grow three crops a year. We plant two on the southwest side of the island and give it a break to induce a fallow winter to knock bugs down,” Phillipson says.
The cycles are planted in October and harvested in January, and planted in February and harvested in May.
On the east side near Lihue is a slower spring, summer growing cycle, the same as much of the Northern Hemisphere.
“It takes 10 to 12 crops to get a seed that’s marketable because most projects we do don’t make it,” Phillipson says. “It’s testing, honing. Between cycles 1 and 12 a product can get wiped out, deemed a failure. It can be the genetics aren’t performing the way we want. It has to have the desired characteristics for a given area. If corn goes to Iowa, we don’t want it to fall over in the wind.”
Almost all of what Syngenta does in Hawaii is research and development on corn. It also does some research in Puerto Rico and in Chile and other South American countries.
It develops genetically modified strains of varieties at its laboratories in North Carolina and they are approved by the USDA, Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency before field testing in Hawaii, Phillipson says.
GMO corn started in 1996 by using a natural bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, which is “the No. 1 pesticide organic farmers use,” Phillipson says.
With Bacillus thuringiensis, scientists were able to coax plants to produce their own bacterial protein to kill pests. The result has been less use of certain pesticides. “Use of conventional pesticides recommended for control of the European corn borer has dropped by about one-third since Bt corn was introduced,” according to the EPA website.
Since 1996, the focus of genetically modified corn has been on pesticide resistance, drought resistance and higher yields, Phillipson says. It’s been years of fine-tuning strains of corn varieties for those traits.
Now, he says, the focus is turning to bio-fortification — adding nutrients for the dietary benefit of consumers.
“A great example of what can be done is rice, the world’s most popular staple,” he says.
Vitamin A is important for eye development. People get it in meat but not in a diet exclusively made up of rice. So scientists found a way, he says, with genetic modification to put Vitamin A from carrots into rice. It’s called golden rice.
“It’s been studied and proven but lacks worldwide acceptance,” he says. “This product has been out there for 10 years.”
Despite all the industry effort on golden rice, it hasn’t been deregulated or commercialized, says Ashley Lukens, program director for the Hawaii chapter of the Center for Food Safety in Honolulu.
Yukimura, the county council member, says she’s intrigued by the use of GMO to combat blindness but that limitations have to be understood and accounted for to avoid unintended consequences.
The issue of genetic engineering in Hawaii is an issue of pesticides, Lukens says.
“The chemical companies that are developing and testing these (GMO) plant varieties are doing so in order to enable the use of more of their signature chemicals,” she says. “The process of field testing requires heavy use of pesticides and over time as their operations have expanded and intensified the community is feeling the human and environmental impact of that use.”
Voluntary reporting by the companies since December shows extremely high use of chloripyrifos, known to have neurological impacts on children, she says.
All chemicals are applied in accordance with state and federal regulations, Phillipson says.
Kauai’s GMO and pesticide law, the one overturned in August, required the companies to disclose when and where they spray pesticides and restricted spraying to certain distances from public areas.
In the lawsuit, the companies contended Kauai’s law violated state and federal laws and the state and U.S. constitutions and targeted the industry with baseless and burdensome restrictions. Farming practices are already regulated by state and federal laws, the companies said.
“Out of all of this, the state sought a solution they call the good neighbor program,” Phillipson says. “If we are going to spray a pesticide anywhere near a residence, school or hospital we will notify them a week before. We’ve already been doing that since last November. Other companies do it, too.”
The law required buffer zones of 500 feet but Syngenta hasn’t farmed within 1,500 feet of any dwelling for years, Phillipson says. Only approved products are being tested, he says.
The company knocked on doors of more than 200 residences in Waimea and only 19 wanted to be notified of spray plans, he says.
Syngenta on labeling
Syngenta has spent money to defeat mandatory GMO labeling initiatives in California, Washington and Oregon but is not opposed to voluntary GMO labeling, Phillipson says.
“It’s estimated that over 70 to 80 percent of foods Americans buy in grocery stores have a GMO component in them,” he says. “Forced labeling with track and trace programs will cost the average American family $400 to $500 more in their food bill.
“The FDA mandates that GMO products must be equivalent in nutritional value and safe. So the nutritional value of GMO corn and non-GMO corn is the same. So you are labeling the process of how it got there, not what it is,” he says.
GMOs have been the target of initiatives on three islands. A proposed amendment to the Kauai County charter banning GMO cultivation until the safety of pesticide use is proven to the county’s satisfaction didn’t get enough signatures to get on a ballot.
“If the idea is to prove everything is 100 percent safe before you use it, we wouldn’t be flying airplanes, driving automobiles or taking aspirin,” Phillipson says.
The Big Island passed a GMO ban that’s being fought by banana and papaya growers and florists that it impacts. The big seed companies don’t grow GMO plants there. On Maui efforts are underway for a Nov. 4 ballot measure that would place a moratorium on growing or testing GMO crops until companies complete environmental and health studies.
What if, some day, the state banned GMO farming?
“It would be a terrible blow to the state’s economy,” Phillipson says. “It would delay the advancement of new products. I believe that’s why the activists call this ground zero.
“(Testing) would go forth at other sites, primarily Puerto Rico, but there would be more regulatory hoops to jump through. The advantage of working in the U.S. is that we have the best regulatory system in the world. Not to knock the Chilean government, but it doesn’t have the resources the U.S. government has to regulate these important crops.
“Most of the research for the American corn market in GMO is done here. So if these laws pass there will be a ripple effect to the American farmer and you will feel it in anything that has corn in it. It will increase in price. We would probably have a seed shortage.”