Organic and conventional agricultural systems can and do coexist

At the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management at UH Hilo, we are concerned with food production and sustainability, and we value and promote all effective agricultural systems.

By Michael Shintaku, Professor of Plant Pathology.

Michael Shintaku
Michael Shintaku

We have some very serious plant disease problems in Hawai‘i, and plant disease issues keep farmers and conservationists awake at night, as disease-causing pathogens too often take everything away.

A good example of technology used for plant disease management is right in our own back yard. Papaya ringspot virus (PRSV) arrived in Puna in 1992 and rapidly spread through Puna and Kea‘au, killing every papaya tree it infected. The industry and almost every backyard papaya tree would be long gone if not for the transgenic solution provided by Dr. Dennis Gonsalves’s research team, who developed transgenic papaya plants (now widely planted) with PRSV resistance.

PRSV-resistant papayas were introduced in 1998, and we might consider that a first-generation transgenic crop, along with Bt- and Roundup Ready corn, introduced in about 1996. Bt corn is resistant to corn earworm, stalk borer, European corn borer, and other lepidopteran pests. Roundup Ready is resistant to glyphosate (Roundup), a common herbicide. Bt simplifies insect pest management and glyphosate resistance simplifies weed control. Cotton, soybean, sugarbeets and canola carrying some of these traits have been widely available and enthusiastically adopted. Well over 85 percent of these crops in the U.S. are now transgenic for one or more of these traits. Both the Bt and Roundup Ready genes come from bacteria.

The second generation of transgenic crops will likely include drought-tolerant corn (transgenic for a bacterial gene), bananas resistant to Banana Xanthomonas Wilt (transgenic for a rice gene) and potatoes with resistance to late blight (transgenic for a gene from the wild potato Solanum bulbocastanum).

Meanwhile, legislators in Hawai‘i are proposing bills limiting or prohibiting the use of transgenic crops. Bill 113, signed by Mayor Billy Kenoi on the Big Island in December 2013, prohibits any new transgenic crops on the Big Island. Bill 2491/Ordinance 960 on Kaua‘i was passed over the veto of Mayor Bernard Carvalho in November 2013 and is squarely aimed at shackling and then eliminating the seed companies that operate there. The SHAKA movement placed an initiative on this year’s Maui ballot proposing to ban transgenic crops in Maui County.

Recently, a federal judge ruled Kaua‘i’s Ordinance 960 invalid because it attempts to supersede state and federal authority, and the same judge will rule on the Big Island bill shortly. No reasonable person will say all transgenic crops are safe, and no reasonable person will say all cars, beverages or organic crops are safe. Yet the Maui and Hawai‘i County bills insist we not grow transgenic crops until they are proven safe. These bills are thus a ban on transgenic crops.

The council members on Kaua‘i and the Big Island, and the SHAKA movement on Maui, are arguing for these bans from a position of ignorance. They say we should ban transgenic crops because there is too much we don’t understand. Meanwhile, this is the statement from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest and most prestigious scientific society:

“The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe. The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.”

While condemning the conventional agriculture feeding the masses, many anti-GMO councilmembers support organic agriculture. Organic and conventional agricultural systems can and do coexist, and are we really producing so much food that we can get rid of a whole sector? No. At the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, we are concerned with food production and sustainability, and we value and promote all effective agricultural systems. We welcome all students interested in agriculture and sustainability.

Michael Shintaku, PhD, is a professor of plant pathology at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. He is faculty at UH Hilo’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management where he teaches plant pathology, plant disease diagnosis, plant biotechnology, genetic analysis, molecular methods in conservation biology, and applied microbiology. In his research, he specializes in plant-virus interactions, with research projects involving tomato spotted wilt virus, cymbidium mosaic virus, dasheen mosaic virus, and the bacterial wilt pathogen Ralstonia solanacearum. Currently, he’s researching diseases of taro, ginger, and lettuce, all crops of relevance to the Big Island agricultural community (learn more about Professor Shintaku’s research). He received his master of science in plant pathology from UH Mānoa and his doctor of philosophy in plant pathology from Cornell University. Contact info.

-This column was originally published in Sept. 2014 at UH Hilo Stories.