Snack-Attack On Biotech No Fatal Blow To Hawaii

February 3, 2000
Honolulu Advertiser

Supporters of HawaiiÕs role in the emerging biotech industry must not be discouraged by recent news that the huge Frito-Lay company will no longer make chips out of genetically altered corn.

This decision, a response to consumer qualms about bio-engineered foods, will be seen as a setback for HawaiiÕs booming $20 million-a-year seed-corn business. But it is not a fatal blow.

The debate over bio-engineered foods has heated in recent days. Europe, particularly, is suspicious of food products made from biologically engineered plants or animals.

While consumer opposition in the United States is not as strong, it is apparently enough to concern Frito-Lay.

Frito-LayÕs primary concern is selling snacks, not in building a base for high-tech agriculture in Hawaii. So, the local industry will simply have to take this blow and move on.

Still, the future for seed corn and other forms of biotechnology remains bright in the Islands and should continue to receive support from the state, from the University of Hawaii and from private industry.

The first line of attack is to continue to work for consumer acceptance of biologically engineered food products. From disease-resistant papaya to naturally decaffinated coffee, Hawaii is developing a wide list of likely products that owe their success to bio-engineering.

There are legitimate concerns about biologically engineered crops, but they have to do with larger environmental questions rather than the health or safety of the final consumers. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has ruled that biotech foods are safe to eat.

The larger concerns focus on issues such as whether the herbicide- or pesticide-resistant qualities of engineered crops could "escape" or migrate into other species where that resistance might create a problem. Imagine, for instance, an herbicide-resistant weed or alien plant getting into the environment.

These are issues that can be resolved through ethical experimentation and thorough testing and research. And in these areas, HawaiiÕs future remains bright.

Because of our physical isolation and year-around growing season, we are an ideal laboratory for the development of biologically advanced plant species. This is true whether the advances come through genetic engineering or through the more laborious methods that farmers have used for centuries.

In sum, Hawaii must press on with its efforts to develop an international reputation for biotech advances. The Frito-Lay decision is but a momentary setback.


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