May 1, 2007

Hawaii Performing Genetically Modified Crop Research

HONOLULU -- Despite cultural and environmental concerns, researchers at the University of Hawaii are performing genetically modified crop research to develop disease-resistant plants.

The university's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources is conducting transgenic crop research on pineapple, orchids, anthuriums, bananas, tomatoes, petunias and lettuce.

The university is also trying to develop sugar cane that is genetically modified to produce a vaccine to protect against rotavirus, a viral infection. Genetically modified, or transgenic, crops are plants that have been altered by the transfer of genetic material from another species.

Research on papaya and taro has caused a backlash among environmentalists and others. Some taro farmers worry that genetically modified breeds could escape the university environment and eventually overrun native varieties.

The development of new transgenic crops is driven by economics, said Stephen Ferreira, an assistant specialist for plant and environmental protection sciences at the university.

"There's no question at a federal level ... more funds are being funneled or being targeted to some of these kinds of areas," Ferreira said. "Ten years ago you could hardly find money to do transgenic work."

The university's research into genetically modified papaya resulted in the development of a ringspot-virus resistant papaya, which has helped manage the impact of the virus.

Opponents of genetic crop research and genetically modified food say not enough is known about the long-term impact of such products. Many countries, including Japan, won't import transgenic papaya.