Rooting for the Wrong Side?

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David Stoltzfus invited me to tour Monsanto’s north Kihei site. One of the only farms where GMOs grow on Maui, it will be subject to the new moratorium. Row after tidy row of corn grows under the hot December sun. In the far corner, farmworkers hand-fertilize silky tassels with pollen captured from nearby plants. Stoltzfus, the site lead, is as lean and tall as the corn stalks he monitors. He speaks with a slight Midwestern accent and the slow, careful cadence of someone accustomed to talking on record. “Other than the manual pollinations, this is similar to any other corn farm,” he says.

Similar, but not the same. Monsanto’s operation is obviously well financed, with robotic seed sorters, air-conditioned offices, a large staff, and a security guard monitoring the parking lot. The corn grown here isn’t the sweet corn on the cob we eat at backyard barbecues; it’s seed corn, the basis for animal feed, ethanol, and food additives such as corn syrup. And, of course, it’s genetically modified.

As the farmworkers move between corn rows, they slide paper bags laden with pollen off of one tassel and onto another. Stoltzfus explains the farm’s three functions: backcrossing plants (ensuring that the resulting seeds are truly Roundup Ready), creating hybrids with new traits (crossing a Roundup Ready plant with a plant that tolerates cold or drought), and increasing seed crops for sale.

Genetic drift is a concern articulated in the moratorium. I ask Stoltzfus, “Is it possible for pollen to escape these fields and find its way onto corn growing on Oma‘opio Road, a few miles away?” He shakes his head. Corn pollen only lives a few hours, he explains. Heavier than dust, most pollen grains fall at the base of the parent plant. The chances of cross-pollination with plants beyond a quarter of a mile away are “astronomically small.”

That hasn’t proven true with papayas on the Big Island. In the nineties, ringspot virus was decimating Hawai‘i’s papaya orchards. Dennis Gonsalves, a Hawai‘i-born, Cornell-trained plant pathologist, developed a way to inoculate fruits — by inserting the virus’s gene into the papaya’s DNA before it could be infected. It worked; Gonsalves’s GMO fruits effectively halted the ringspot virus epidemic. Today the majority of the Big Island’s papayas are Rainbows — the GMO variety. But their pollen doesn’t stay put. Fruits from supposedly organic papaya trees test positive for the GMO trait, which jeopardizes organic farmers’ certification.

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