GMO Companies Causing Health Problems to Kauai Residents

pesticidesPineapple, sugar, papaya or seeds; which of these agricultural product do you think is the most valuable product of Hawaii? The answer, is seeds, particularly, seed corn. In 2008, seed crops were valued more than $175,000, while sugar cane came in at second, $44,200 and macadamia nuts in third, $33,500. The reason why seed corn is highly valued, is because of Hawaii’s year-round growing environment to help companies make up the difference they pay in shipping, minimal temperature fluctuations, skilled agricultural workforce and a rigorous U.S. regulatory and legal environment are attractive to the seed crop industry. These seeds, however, are not ordinary seeds, but instead, are a type of genetically modified organism, or GMO for short. GMOs carry certain risks because of how genes are unnaturally introduced into a specimen, which could have adverse side effects. On Kauai, seed companies, which include Syngenta, BASF, Dow, and Pioneer, specialize in GMO crops, are undergoing scrutiny from residents, because they will not disclose their farming practices, who residents believe, are affecting their health. In spite of fear that their farming practices may or may not be affecting their health, I believe farmers should disclose their farming practices for the safety of their residents.

In plant agriculture, a transgenic GMO, is the means of intentionally making a copy of a gene for a desired trait from one plant or organism and using it in another plant. Farmer’s select GMOs to reduce yield loss or crop damage from weeds, diseases, and insects, as well as from extreme weather conditions like droughts. Also, it reduces the impact of agriculture on their environment and their costs by applying pesticides in more targeted ways, which could potentially lead to saving a crop, such as the papaya from Hawaii, which was being threatened by a disease.

Using the papaya from Hawaii as an example, genetic engineering was used to give immunity to papayas from the papaya ring spot virus or PRSV. The first step was to determine whether genetic engineering is the most effective way to solve a plant’s problem from diseases or damages from pests, which in this case, is the PRSV.

A gene or material is then identified to solve the problem in providing resistance to the disease or the pest. A copy of the PRSV gene was inserted into the papaya’s DNA because of the plant’s ability to incorporate it and use it to ward of the virus.

A trait from a donor organisms is then transplanted into the plant’s DNA. Researchers were able to isolate the PRSV gene by itself and used a process known as transformation, which a copy of genetic material from a specific trait is inserted into cells. Then a method called the high speed particle bombardment was used with a high pressure insertion device that inserted the gene into the papaya. This ultimately gave the papaya resistance to the PRSV because the DNA of the papaya contained the PRSV gene which contain a protein from the virus that provided this resistance.

Lastly, planting the papaya and testing the plants after seven years to see if it performed well on the farms and also safe for people to eat. This implementation of biotechnology allowed 25,000 pounds of marketable fruit that have been genetically engineered, which produced 25x the amount of a non-modified fruit. By 2013, this breakthrough made the transgenic papaya, known as Rainbow papaya, made up of about 77 percent of the crop

From a business standpoint, I understand why these companies do not want to disclose their farming practices, because of the impact it could make them less competitive in the GMO world and it could jeopardize the hundreds of jobs that these companies have provided for the local residents. In response, however, Mark Phillipson, the head of Hawaii corporate affairs for Syngenta, has stated, “We don’t plant anything that isn’t permitted and approved through the proper regulatory agencies, be it the EPA, the FDA and USDA.”

Despite these claims, I believe that these biotechnology companies have an obligation to disclose what they’re using in their farming practices because if what these resident’s in Kauai are saying is true, early preventive methods can be done so that damage down the road will not be as severe as they are. According to a YouTube video, posted just this past December, by the PBS NewsHour, resident Megan Thompson, wonders if these pesticides and chemicals that these biotechnology companies are using, has caused her son, Naka Dickinson, to be seizing, and have brain hemorrhaging, which ultimately resulted in her son losing his entire frontal lobe all within a day he was born. After consulting with pediatric neurologist and blood specialists, she wonders if the location of their home, which is below the valley of the fields are responsible. She says that she’s been there throughout the entire pregnancy and the drift of dust that contain the pesticides are constantly being blown in her direction.

A protest broke out regarding these companies on Kauai, in which residents want a bill passed which would create buffer zones around the fields and force the companies to disclose what pesticides they’re using, when they’re spraying and how much. Local doctors have shown support and say that there is strong anecdotal evidence that there’s a statistically significant different in the incidence of cancer, asthma and birth defects which include rare heart defects in babies at a rate 10 times the national average.

Other studies have shown, that there are several types of potential health effects that could result from the insertion of a novel gene into an organism. Health effects of primary concern to safety assessors are production of new allergens, increased toxicity, decreased nutrition, and antibiotic resistance (Bernstein et al., 2003)

In terms of allergens, if a source that has never been consumed as human food before, the concern that the protein could elicit an immune response in humans increases. Increased toxicity occurs because most plants produce substances that are toxic to humans. Although naturally these toxic are meniscal, introducing an exotic gene into a plant could cause it to produce toxins at higher levels that could be dangerous to humans. Decreased nutritional value can happen when a genetically modified plant could theoretically have lower quality than its counterpart by making nutrients unavailable or indigestible to humans. Antibiotic resistance increases because bacterial develop resistance to antibiotics by creating resistant genes through natural mutation. Biotechnologies us these resistances as gene markers when inserting new genes into plants. There is concern that our bacteria in our guts could pick up these antibiotic resistant gene from the genetically modified plant before the DNA becomes completely digested.

With the above problems that these people could potentially face, it is, in the best interest of the people of Kauai, for these biotechnology companies to just open up and discuss what they’re using in their farming practices. By saying that you follow the rules and don’t use unapproved methods governed by the FDA, EPA, and USDA is not enough to give residents a peace of mind. At the end of the day, what matters most is the safety of the community because our health is of utmost importance. Also noting, without the community, who will you sell your products to?

Since these companies are not disclosing what they’re using in their farming practices, it’s as if they’re telling residents, that their business is more important to them and we don’t care about your health. It can be understood, that you don’t want to reveal farming practices due to being less competitive in the field and it could cost potential jobs, but because there’s been an increase in people getting sick around the area of your farms, that should raise some sort of flag. As local politician, Gary Hooser, said in the YouTube video interview, “It’s really quite simple. Tell us what you’re spraying, what you’re growing, and then let us do a study to determine whether people really are getting sick.”



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