Genetically Modified Organisms
8:00 pm
Mon January 6, 2014

Lessons to be Learned from a Councilman’s Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops

Greggor Ilagan initially thought a ban on genetically modified organisms was a good idea, until he did his homework.
Credit Jim Wilson / nytimes.com

Hawaii may seem a long way from the High Plains, but there are lessons to be learned from Greggor Ilagan’s quest to find the facts about genetically modified organisms.  

In May of 2013, a bill was introduced to ban genetically modified crops on the island of Hawaii.  The bill received more vocal support than even the decriminalization of marijuana according to the New York Times

The bill would ban the cultivation of any genetically engineered crop on the island, with the exception of the two already grown there: corn recently planted by an island dairy to feed its cows, and papaya. Field tests to study new G.M.O. crops would also be prohibited. Penalties would be $1,000 per day.

Public hearings mainly focused on all the negative side effects of G.M.O.s.  Side effects like cancer in rats, an increase in childhood allergies, out-of-control superweeds, genetic contamination, pesticide overuse, and the disappearance of butterflies and bees.

During the debate of the bill throughout 2013, Councilman Greggor Ilagan searched for answers from respected scientists and independent studies not back by the industry. 

He discovered:

  • The negative information shared with the public was backed by the fast growing organic food industry, and activists who want to change the industrialized food system.
  • The anti-G.M.O. groundswell irritated scientists who argue opponents of G.M.O.s have distorted the risks.  
  • Genetic modification has saved the rainbow papaya, a plant that was being decimated by a virus in Hawaii.
  • Genetic modification has reduced the amount of pesticide needed for papaya farmers.  The virus killing the plants was spread by insects.
  • The study showing G.M.O.s causing tumors in rats was universally scorned by scientists.  The kind of rats used in the study would develop tumors without G.M.O. consumption.
  • The Russian Journal report on the decrease in hamster reproductivity was contradicted by other studies and deemed bogus by mainstream scientists.
  • The correlation between G.M.O. consumption and an increase in childhood allergies was a common mistake of confusing correlation for causation.
  • The disappearance of butterflies was not due to a toxin produced by modified plants that harmed them, but because the herbicide used on Midwestern farms eliminated the milkweek butterflies hatch on.
  • Biofortified, which receives no funding from industry, listed more than a hundred independent studies, including a 2010 comprehensive review sponsored by the European Union, that found “no scientific evidence associating G.M.O.s with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.” It echoed similar statements by the World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of Medicine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Popular myths such as G.M. seeds are sterile, and genetically modified cotton has driven Indian farmers to suicide were disproved by reputable organizations.

What became of the bill?  In October, Mr. Ilagan voted to block the bill from moving out of committee.  Seven hours of public testimony was heard in regard to the ban of genetically modified organisms.  The ban was approved, 6 to 3,  and signed by the mayor on December 5.  

The detailed article written by Amy Harmon for the New York Times can be found here.