By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The debate over genetically modified food is attracting the attention of some of the Big Island’s business leaders.
On Monday, two island business groups are hosting what they are calling the “Hawaii Island GMO Summit” to allow their members to delve into the controversial issue.
Held by the Hawaii Island Economic Development Board and Hawaii Leeward Planning Conference at the Fairmont Orchid, the gathering will include speakers and a panel discussion, with several participants coming from the mainland.
A few may be recognizable to those who follow the national debate over genetically modified organisms.
Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, and Karl Haro von Mogel, who runs biofortified.org, will be among the three guests given 30 minutes to speak on the topic.
The third will be Martina Newell-McGloughlin, director of the University of California’s biotechnology research and education program.
A panel will include Kamanamaikalani Beamer, assistant professor in the University of Hawaii’s Hui ‘Aina Momona program; Hector Valenzuela, a vegetable crops extension specialist with UH-Manoa; and Dennis Gonsalves, retired director of the Pacific Basin Agriculture Research Center.
Each panelist will be given 10 minutes to speak before a question-and-answer period, said Jacqui Hoover, who heads both business groups.
Hoover acknowledged during an interview that it does appear the groups “stacked the deck” with pro-GMO speakers. Valenzuela is an outspoken critic of transgenic agriculture, while Beamer is expected to speak on the issue from a Hawaiian cultural standpoint.
The other speakers are either current or former biotech researchers or advocates of transgenic crops.
Hoover said it wasn’t the intent to have mostly pro-GMO voices at the event.
“We really did cast a wide net,” she said. “We got several folks who self identify as being against GMO, but they wouldn’t come and speak.
“There were several cases concerned about current and future funding. Several others couldn’t make it because they couldn’t make it at the item we had available to do this.”
The five-hour conference is mainly reserved for members of the two groups.
Hoover said she was accepting some reservations from others, but noted the deadline was Wednesday.
She said members of both groups have been pushing to get more information about GMOs since the Hawaii County Council began considering legislation restricting their use.
“They find themselves more and more confused and feeling like they didn’t understand the science and socio-economic impacts,” Hoover said.
Valenzuela said by phone Thursday that he plans to counter the argument that modified crops are safe for human consumption.
“My main points is that there’s still a lot of questions,” he said. “After 20 years of having this in the fields, we are starting to come up with actual solid evidence of the harmful effects.”
Valenzuela said he will also address transgenic papaya, credited with saving the papaya industry on the isle from the ringspot virus.
But he said he isn’t convinced that’s the case and points to production levels still not recovering to pre-virus levels.
Entine and Haro von Mogel both run websites focused on clearing up what they see as misconceptions about biotechnology.
Though supporters of genetic engineering, they both told the Tribune-Herald that their projects are not financially supported by biotech companies.
Haron von Mogel is also a doctoral candidate in plant breeding and plant genetics at the University of Wisconsin.
Entine is a senior fellow at the Center for Health and Risk Communication and the Statistical Assessment Service at George Mason University.
They said they plan to address misconceptions but not make the argument that genetic engineering is 100 percent safe or fool proof.
“If anybody tells you there’s no risk … you are not a scientist,” Entine said.
But he argues that the risk isn’t any greater than gene swapping through more conventional hybridization.
“There are always unknown risks when you are doing crossbreeding,” Entine said. “I think where the debate has gone off the rails is people don’t understand … comparable and acceptable risks.”
Haron von Mogel said he is also working on a searchable database on his website that will list 1,000-plus studies done on transgenic crops.
They will include information on their conclusions and who performed the study.
He hopes to have it up this fall.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.