• Black Market in Golden Fruit: Transgenic Seeds Tempt Thieves

    Posted on June 1, 1999 by in Agriculture, News

    Crops and robbers

    By Teresa Dawson
    Environment Hawai’i
    June 01, 1999

    When it comes to the use of genetically engineered seeds, Big Island papaya farmers “don’t have much choice,” says Stephanie Whalen, director of the Hawai`i Agriculture Research Center. “They either use the seeds, or they don’t have an industry.”

    Since 1992, when the papaya ringspot virus first hit the Big Island, more than 100 papaya farmers have been forced to destroy their fields to prevent the virus’ spread. Now, those same farmers see themselves as having little choice but to embrace genetically engineered seeds.

    Elsewhere, farmers have protested developments that have left them dependent on a single source of growable seeds.

    “In the red soils of India, farmers worried about [Monsanto] gaining control over their lives. And despite a plague of pests, they distrusted its promises to deliver magical seeds that give relief. Last month, in a spectacle of fury called `Operation Cremation Monsanto,’ they torched Monsanto Co. test plots of genetically engineered cotton,” Bill Lambrecht of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote in a December 28, 1998 article.

    In contrast, papaya farmers in Hawai`i can hardly wait to plant the seeds of change.

    Limited Choices

    Two types of transgenic papaya seeds are being distributed: the SunUp and the Rainbow, which is a hybrid of SunUp and the yellow-fleshed Kapoho papaya. Because the Rainbow papayas are hybrids, their offspring will not be resistant to disease and will differ in color and consistency, according to Emerson Llantero, manager of the Papaya Administrative Committee. As a result, farmers must return to the PAC every year for more seeds if they want to grow Rainbow papayas.

    On May 10 last year, the PAC distributed 13.5 million papaya seeds that had been genetically engineered to resist PRSV to those Big Island farmers who destroyed their fields to prevent the virus from spreading.

    The PAC gave each papaya farmer enough seeds to plant half an acre. Today, about 150 farmers have planted an estimated 1,200 acres with the new seeds, according to Llantero. In later years, though, the growers must pay — not a payment for the seed directly, says Llantero, but an assessment to the PAC for every pound of papayas that they sell. The money will then go toward developing more seeds.

    Monsanto Corporation is one of four entities that have contributed patented “intellectual property” to the development of Hawai`i’s transgenic papayas. With funds provided by the state’s Agribusiness Development Corporation, the PAC spent a total of $100,887 to secure patent licenses from Monsanto, Asgrow Seed Co., Cambia Biosystems LLC, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    Monsanto almost always requires buyers of its Roundup Ready seeds — genetically engineered to survive applications of Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicide Roundup — to agree to not replant seeds from the first crop. Likewise, the PAC, following Monsanto’s instructions, is requiring papaya growers to sign an agreement promising that they would not distribute the transgenic seed to anyone else, according to Hubert Olipares.

    The reason for these types of agreements, says HARC’s Stephanie Whalen, is to cover the cost of the investment companies have put in to technology development. “Some have spent hundreds of millions of dollars,” she says. “They didn’t do that just to give it away.”

    Seed Nappers

    But what won’t be given can still be stolen. Even before PAC began handing out free seeds for the first big crop of transgenic papayas on the Big Island, some farmers couldn’t wait to get their hands on them.

    The problem was discovered one day in March 1997. University of Hawai`i technician Cathy Mello was walking among the transgenic papaya fields of the university’s Malama-Ki farm in the Puna District of the Big Island when she discovered something unusual: Several papayas had been cut open and the seeds had been removed. Also, in the weeks following the incident, fruit production was around half what it was before.

    The incident was the first of several over the next year and a half involving the illegal taking of genetically engineered papaya seeds from state and private operations.

    At the time of the theft, the PAC had not yet obtained the required licenses. The licenses, which PAC finally obtained in April 1998, were needed before the PAC could distribute the seed.

    After Mello’s discovery, PAC members were kept busy tracking down rumors that genetically engineered papaya seeds were being stolen from test sites. But the problem of seed theft was not brought to the attention of the University of Hawai`i’s Institutional Biosafety Committee or officials of the state Department of Agriculture until June 22, 1998 — more than a year after the first suspicious incident.

    The meeting addressed rumors that a number of growers may have obtained transgenic papaya seeds before the PAC was licensed to distribute them. At the meeting, PAC administrator Llantero and Steve Ferreira of UH’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources reported on their review of the rumored thefts.

    On May 10, 1996, they reported, UH horticulturist Richard Manshardt took Ernesto Tagalicud (a former PAC chairman), two other papaya growers, and PAC manager Ginny Aste to the Malama-Ki field, where they inspected transgenic papaya plants.

    Two months after Mello’s discovery of the cut-open fruit in March 1997, Ferreira and Llantero surveyed papaya farms in Puna to obtain samples of the ringspot virus, hoping to develop a baseline characterization of the area. Among the farms they visited was that of Tagalicud in the Chow Ranch area. At the time, Ferreira noticed that Tagalicud’s papaya plants appeared not to be infected with PRSV, while papayas in neighboring farms were.

    A few days later, Ferreira and Llantero reported, Tagalicud called Ferreira, accusing him of trespass and insisting that if Ferreira should ever want to visit his farm again, he would have to let Tagalicud know in advance. Shortly thereafter, when Ferreira was in the area once more, he noticed that Tagalicud had posted “No Trespassing” signs around his papaya fields.

    In December 1997, Ferreira and Llantero heard rumors that someone described as a hippie was offering SunUp seedlings in Hilo. Mello thought the man might be a friend of a worker at Malama-Ki.

    In March 1998, the Hawai`i Agricultural Research Center reported that 700 pounds of Rainbow papaya, valued at $30,000, were stolen from a production field at the Wailua Station on Kaua`i.

    During the next month, Mello found ten more fruits cut open in the Malama-Ki field. The harvest of that field was later cancelled because there was not enough ripe fruit, raising suspicions that much of the fruit had been stolen.

    After obtaining the needed licenses, PAC conducted the required educational sessions for the new growers of transgenic papayas in April and May 1998. At that time, reported Ferreria and Llantero, some papaya growers asked if there could be an amnesty program for between 10 and 12 growers who somehow had already obtained the seeds. According to the farmers, about 50 acres had been planted with the transgenic seeds.

    Damage Control

    The theft of the papaya seed “is a sensitive issue, especially if transgenic papayas were being sold in regulated markets such as Canada and Japan,” said one participant at the June 1998 meeting. They are two of the many countries that have banned or restricted imports of genetically engineered foods.

    Those who attended the June meeting agreed to “treat it as a theft issue, as a means of minimizing exposure and embarrassment of rumored sales in regulated markets,” the minutes state. “Patent holders ought to be notified. If Monsanto found out from another source, future licenses or arrangements could be jeopardized.”

    The minutes also state that CTAHR’s Michael Harrington suggested that a statement be made to the university about the importance of maintaining the integrity of UH facilities in biotechnology, “especially in view of discussions underway to establish a biotechnology facility with Monsanto.”

    Harrington told Environment Hawai`i that a proposal to establish a tropical agriculture biotech center in Hawai`i was developed about five or six years ago. In the past year, the local biotech community has been evaluating and discussing the strengths and weaknesses of Hawai`i’s current biotech programs and assessing what is needed for biotechnology to succeed, he says.

    With regards to seed theft, “Out concern was that even though a field is posted appropriately, and all security measures are in place, you can’t prevent sombody from doing something like that. And we didn’t want it to impact our ability to do that kind of work,” Harrington says.

    Since the indicents have come to light, the university has tightened security at all of its research stations, Harrington says. “Neighboring farmers treated experiment stations as their own private garden. [Today], people are not allowed to come on the stations and take things, nor are station people to give things away,” he says.

    What happened to the farmers who may have obtained and used the transgenic seeds without authorization? The files at UH’s Institutional Biosafety Committee show the university sent just one letter to Michael Durkan, a Hilo grower. According to a news report in the Hawai`i Herald-Tribune of November 1, 1998, Durkan planted seven acres in Poho`iki with SunUp papaya seeds he had obtained from a friend who in turn received them from a UH employee.

    More than a year after the purloined seeds were planted, Durkan received a letter from UH Vice President Dean Smith.

    “It has come to our attention through reliable sources that you have unauthorized possession, use and cultivation of SunUp transgenic papaya seeds,” Smith wrote to Durkan on October 14, 1998. “This endangers the Papaya Action Committee’s license to the use of this transgenic technology and future commercial cultivation.”

    “DEMAND IS HEREBY MADE that you completely cease all cultivation and use of these transgenic seeds. Further, we ask that you turn over any and all transgenic seeds or seedlings presently in your possession. Any and all fields under transgenic papaya seed or seedling cultivation must be destroyed under the supervision of an authorized witness within one week of this letter or appropriate legal proceedings will be instituted.”

    Durkan did not comply. On October 30, 1998, the Tribune-Herald article reported, the university asked the state Attorney General’s Office to pursue criminal prosecution.

    By May 1999, no legal action had been taken against Durkan.

    Lucky You Live Hawai`i

    Had Durkan been growing soybeans in Kentucky instead of papayas in Hawai`i, the outcome might be altogether different. There, Monsanto prosecuted one David Chaney who acknowledged he had saved, replanted, and illegally traded Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans.

    On October 1, 1998, Monsanto mailed identical letters to some 30,000 farmers who buy its products, reciting to them the cautionary tale of Chaney. To avoid a long and costly court battle with Monsanto, the world’s third-largest agrochemical company and second-largest seed company, Chaney agreed to pay Monsanto $35,000 in royalties and to provide the company with full documentation conforming the disposal of his unlawful soybean crop. According to an article in the Journal of Pesticide Reform, under terms of the settlement, Chaney was also forbidden to criticize Monsanto in any way.

    Monsanto’s letter went on to tell the farmers it is pursuing more than 425 cases of seed piracy throughout the United States.

    If Monsanto has its way, the very ability of farmers to replant some seeds may be nearing an end. From time immemorial, farmers have saved seeds from one growing season to plan them in the next. But last March, a genetic technology was patented that will cause plants to produce seeds that will self-destruct. Farmers who buy the seeds would have to buy more seeds each time they plant.

    This new innovation, known as “Terminator Technology,” was developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at a cost to taxpayers of about $229,000. The USDA hold the patent with Delta and Pine Land Company, the nation’s largest producer of cotton seeds, which Monsanto is attempting to acquire.

    To the companies investing millions of dollars in the genetic alteration of food crops, “Terminator Technology” serves as a safeguard of that investment. To others, such as geneticist Ricarda Steinbrecher and Pat Roy Mooney, executive director of the Canadian organization Rural Advancement Foundation International, it represents growing corporate control over food production.

    In their article, “Terminator Technology,” published in the September/October 1998 edition of The Ecologist, Steinbrecher and Mooney write:

    “The Terminator does more than ensure that farmers can’t successfully plant their harvested seed. It is the ‘platform’ upon which companies can load their proprietary genetic traits — patented genes for herbicide tolerance or insect tolerance — and get the farmers hooked on their seeds and caught in the chemical treadmill.”
    Copyright 1999-2007, Environment Hawai`i, Inc.
    72 Kapi`olani Street, Hilo HI 96720

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