Thursday, December 25, 2008

Koa vs. the BioFuel Bonanza

Koa graveyard on the Mana Road. Photo by Janice Crowl

Fifteen years ago, when a new monthly community paper called Ka'u Landing had just been launched, I helped get it started with a series of articles entitled "Koa: the Struggle for a Forest." At that time, one biologist estimated that only about 15 percent of the islands' original koa forests were still viable as forests. The percentage today is even smaller. I was reminded of that fact last weekend, when I went up with a Sierra Club group to spend a couple of nights at Keanakolu Ranger Cabin on the Mana Road, a public 4WD trail that hangs like a necklace on the windward slopes of Mauna Kea. Most of the land that the Mana Road runs through is officially range land. But it is also a vast koa graveyard: a landscape where a few twisted ancient koa survivors still stand among thousands of rotting fallen trunks.

Koa, for those who don't know, is one of Hawai'i's three major native overstory trees: the big trees that overshadow everything else in the forest and form the backbone of forest ecologies.  'Ohi'a, the most common, tend to dominate the lower-elevation forests and the areas where lava flows are still relatively fresh; Koa prevail in the deep ash soils such as those on the slopes of Mauna Kea at mid-altitude (although some grow at sea level), while the much smaller mamane are the mainstay of the high elevation drylands forest.

Koa, in my opinion, are the most magnificent and unusual of the three. They start out life with delicate, locust-like compound leaves, and later grow large, sickle-shaped "leaves" that technically aren't leaves at all; they evolve out of petioles, the little stems that connect leaves to branches, which in mature Koa elongate and flatten to take over the normal leaf's chlorophyll-making function. But the trunks themselves also undergo a metamorphosis, albeit a slower one. In a healthy forest, young koa sprout from seeds or tree roots wherever sunlight strikes bare soil--a mechanism that evolved so that the forest could replace itself whenever an old tree fell, opening a hole in the forest canopy. In their youth, they grow tall and relatively straight. As the forest ages, however, the old trees grow huge, twisted and gnarled, spreading out their branches to cover more and more area as the trunks around them die.

The surviving trees along the Mana Road are extreme examples of this process, thanks to human interference. When Kamehameha the Great allowed Captain Vancouver to release cattle in Hawai'i, the bovines encountered a landscape that had not evolved with any grazing animals and had no defenses against them. With no native carpet grasses to munch, the cows greedily chomped up young koa and grazed and trampled out the understory plants. The koa seeds that had lain dormant, awaiting their literal chance in the sun, burst forth into the cow-trampled landscape, and were promptly gobbled in their turn. Then, to feed the starving cattle, humans introduced carpet grasses such as kikuyu grass, which had evolved on the African veldt and was programmed to grow faster than the wildebeests and antelopes and cape buffalo could eat it. Kikuyu is so virulent that it can grow atop fence-posts, and completely buries entire fences if it isn't grazed regularly. A koa seed that falls in Kikuyu grass and waits for sun on bare soil to trigger it may face a long hibernation indeed.

So the surviving Koa along the Mana Road have fought a long and losing battle against the cow pastures, falling trunk-by-trunk as they've waited in vain for their replacements to grow. They've grown twisted as giant bonsai, battling the elements to spread their branches as far as possible, producing thousands of seeds in long rattly pods and dumping them into the thick grass without reward.

With a little help, this forest could still grow again. That's obvious if you stroll the public trails around Keanakolu. This area of the forest has been fenced off and the cattle have been evicted. Younger trees appear to be thriving. The grass is still thick underneath them, but wherever there's a bare patch of earth--such as along the edges of the trail -- koa keiki are sprouting up. In fact, a row of young koa is forcing the path itself to visibly shift in places. A few years ago, the remaining koa in this area were being smothered by an invasive vine called banana poka, but biologists introduced a fungus that feeds on poka leaves, thinning the poka enough that the trees can survive. Now poka may even be contributing to the habitat; we saw evidence that native i'iwi and apapane were feeding on the poka blossoms and fruit.

Restoring the native understory could be more of a problem: the grass smothers other plants as well as koa, and may be altering the soil in ways that make it less hospitable to forest plants. But that problem pales, compared to a new threat: the Lingle Administration's drive for energy independence.

I recently reported in the Honolulu Weekly about the efforts of a company called Hawaii Sunfuels to start a plant here that would convert biomass to diesel fuel. To supply that operation, the company wants to plant thousands of acres of non-native eucalyptus trees on current "ranch land" under the DLNR's stewardship. But in two recent public meetings in Hilo and Honoka'a, it became clear that Sunfuels is only one participant in a new land rush: at least five different companies, maybe more, have designs on DLNR lands for biofuel production. Much of that land is currently leased to ranchers and is the same kind of remnant koa forest that I've been describing.

So far, the debate has been mainly between the biofuel companies and the ranchers, who argue that food-raising should also be a priority. But in fact, most of the cattle that are raised on those ranchlands are still being shipped of to the mainland for "finishing" in feedlot--they're an export cash crop, just like sugarcane used to be. Koa itself could be a cash crop. Thousands of fallen logs could probably still be salvaged from those cowpastures, and the rotten part burned for fuel and the good part sold for lumber, and some of the proceeds plowed back into reforestation. Koa could be intercropped with food or fuel crops such as apples or marijuana. There's an orchard at Keanakolu that was planted experimentally in the mid-20th Century and still produces apples and pears, despite decades of neglect. Woodworker Tai Lake and now-Councilman Kelly Greenwell started a project years ago that rotated apple and koa plantings; after salvage logging, apple trees were planted on the lumber mill site, and will produce for a few decades, then can be cut down and reseeded with koa.

Both energy independence and food independence are urgent and worthy goals. But if we allow those grandmother koas to be replaced with eucalyptus, that's the end of any future for the koa forest. As we search for answers to global warming and peak oil, I hope someone will take notice of that.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Papaya Problems.

I recently got a request to repost an article I did years ago, entitled "Plenty Papaya Problems." It was widely reprinted across the Web (0ften without permission) but apparently those other sites have deleted it or gone down, one by one. A partial copy is still up at, but unfortunately, that copy ends in mid-sentence. Even more unfortunately, my own e-copy was on a now-defunct computer. But I am putting up two other articles that I did on same subject, below.

If I can get somebody to pay me for my time, I'd like to do an update on the situation. I do know that the GM papayas have certainly not solved farmers' problems; in fact, they've proven even more susceptible than normal papayas to another disease, a fungal infection called phytophthera. Once more, lower Puna is dotted with abandoned fields full dead and dying papaya trees.

Archive: GMOs II: Transgenic Hawaii v. Chaos Theory

Hawai`i’s government and educational establishment have rushed to embrace genetic engineering technology. But on the ground, things keep going not quite as planned.

In the movie Jurassic Park, mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) demonstrates Chaos Theory to paleobotanist Ellie Satler (Laura Dern) by using drops of water falling on a human hand. No two droplets run down the hand the same way; factors too small and numerous to control always combine to send the droplets on unpredictable paths. This, Malcolm explains, is why Jurassic Park should never have been built: no matter how carefully it is planned, chaos will inevitably set in.

Just then, of course, the power fails, the tour jeep is stranded, and all Jurassic breaks loose.

This, in a nutshell, is the argument that many opponents tend to make against genetically modified organisms.

No one, so far as we know, has actually attempted to re-grow a dinosaur. But in the past decade, a huge number of brand new organisms have been created: plants that make their own insecticide, mammals that glow in the dark, fruit trees containing virus genes, tomatoes with flounder genes and potatoes with chicken genes. Among the GMOs that have already entered commercial production-are weed-killer-tolerant and/or insectidal corn, soybeans, rapeseed (the source of canola oil), flax and cotton, which have been incorporated into food products from baby food to mayonnaise--none of which are required to be labeled as containing GMOs. Researchers have already introduced, or are currently testing, transgenic organisms including catfish, salmon, raspberries, sunflower seeds, walnuts, apples, hops, grapes, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, onions, peanuts, watermelons, cranberries, plums, strawberries, broccoli, eggplants, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, peas, sweetgum trees, poplars, spruces, bluegrass, zoysia grass, sugar beets, sugarcane, orchids, gladioli, petunias, chrysanthemums, carnations, rice and tobacco.

Hawai'i Leads the Way

While Europe, Canada and Japan have followed, at best, a “go-slow” approach to GMOs, Hawai`i’s educational and governmental establishments have largely embraced them. “Our growing biotechnology industry and its sectors--agriculture, marine sciences, human therapeutics, and the environment--are important sources of quality jobs and prosperity for the state,” Governor Ben Cayetano told delegates to the annual convention of Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) last spring. “Recognizing this potential, we formed a partnership--government, education and the industry--to develop a cohesive plan...BIO provided a great deal of assistance in the formulation of a competitiveness strategy for Hawaii's industry, completed in December 1999.....”

Hawai`i’s scientific community has already positioned itself at the forefront of this effort. UH-Manoa researchers developed “Honolulu transgenesis,” a method of transplanting genes into mammals, which could be a licensing goldmine. Among the first subjects of the technique were the university’s famous (or infamous) phosphorescent mice, which glow under ultraviolet light because of a transplanted jellyfish gene. The jellyfish gene was chosen simply as a “marker”: it produced an easily detectable trait that proved the gene transplant was successful. Theoretically, virtually any gene could be transplanted using the technique.

“Possible applications could include using the mouse as a model for studying the function of human genes,” speculates one press release. “Also, more organs could be available for human transplant if pig genomes could be modified so that the corresponding pig organs wouldn't trigger a critical immune rejection in patients who receive them.”

Using similar techniques, Oregon researchers recently created glow-in-the-dark monkey embryos, suggesting that the feasibility of gene transplants in humans.

Nor is Hawai`i’s transgenic push limited to mammals. One goal listed on UH’s Sea Grant website, for instance, is the production of commercial gene-engineered shrimp. UH researchers have been looking into a transgenic solution to the tomato wiltspot virus, which affects at least 225 different flower and fruit species. An online description of a UH-Manoa course entitled “Biotechnology” is devoted almost entirely to transgenic topics such as “Recombinant DNA technology to produce new products in bacteria and fungi, “Production of human insulin and growth hormone in microorganisms,” “Transgenic fish,” “Engineering plants for herbicide and disease resistance,” and “Gene Therapy.” To its credit, the course also looks at “Ethical issues in biotechnology” and “Environmental aspects and concerns.”

The state is also attracting corporate research dollars. GMO giant Monsanto has applied for a federal EPA permit to grow experimental insecticidal corn here, for instance. Some commercially-approved insecticidal and herbicide-resistant corn varieties may already be in production by Hawai`i’s burgeoning seed corn industry. The World Rainforest Movement recently reported that an Australian company, ProBio, planned to plant experimental gene-engineered eucalyptus trees in Hawaii.

“There have been over 1,200 field tests applied for in Hawaii alone--most of it corn, but also rice, anthuriums, dendrobiums, and coffee with with lower caffeine levels,” notes retired Indiana University researcher Marti Crouch, who helped develop GM rapeseed before leaving the field because of concerns about the technology. She adds, “A lot of those applications don’t say specifically what kind of genes have been inserted, because it’s considered confidential business information.”

The most prominent transgenic plant on the Big Island so far remains the GM papaya. The UH and Cornell researchers who developed the new papayas have touted them for “saving” the local industry from papaya ringspot virus, which had devastated Big Island papaya fields.(See Part 1 of this series, Hawai`i Island Journal, May 16-21, pp. 8-10: the first GM variety, red-fleshed UH SunUp, was crossed with the popular non-GM Kapoho Solo to produce UH Rainbow. Both varieties contain Ringspot virus genes that make them virus-resistant. But their commercial introduction has been accompanied by a crash in papaya prices, and key markets in Japan and Canada have yet to accept it for export.

Huge Benefits, Unkown Costs

GM technology’s potential benefits are enormous: new medicines, cures for genetic diseases, healthier and more productive crops. Proponents argue that the risks to the environment of changing a few genes are less than those of using more pesticides or breeding entire organisms.

Many environmentalists and some scientists, however, argue that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are flooding into the environment and the human food chain faster than regulations can be created to insure those products’ safety; that huge numbers of people are eating proteins no human has ever ingested before; and that inevitably, unpredictable and regrettable things are going to happen. Opponents can already point to some examples of Chaos Theory in action. One study indicated that genes from an insect-killing bacterium, bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), found to be harmless to mammals by itself, was linked to intestinal abnormalities in rodents when the gene was transplanted to potatoes. Another researcher found that pollen containing genes from the same bacteria, could impair or kill monarch butterfly caterpillars on nearby milkweed plants. And of course there were the infamous Taco Bell taco shells, found to contain a strain of GM corn approved only for animals.

Crouch notes that when a gene is inserted for a given effect, researchers can get more than they ask for: “Sometimes the researcher is adding a protein and the researcher thinks he knows what it does, but it creates other changes as well...sometimes it only shows up when the plant has been grown for a while. It may only show up under certain environmental conditions that weren’t encountered during the field tests....”

GMO opponents point out that among most common of the early GMO releases have been crops genetically designed to be herbicide tolerant--“Roundup-ready,” they are called--so that even more herbicides can be applied.

Papaya Meets Nature

In many ways, the GM papaya seems a best case scenario for a transgenic organism. It fulfills an urgent need by countering a virus invasion of plague proportions. If fruit from UH Sunup or UH Rainbow, the two commercial GM papaya strains, are tested for transgenic materials, only the seeds test positive. The plants contain only three alien genes. The virus genes they contain are also present in non-GM fruit that have been exposed to ringspot. Ringspot can only be contracted by other plants, not by humans.

Still, the GM papaya program has had its share of mishaps and missteps. Environment Hawai`i reported that in 1998, wind-born GM pollen may have escaped from an O‘ahu test site, due to the accidental presence of male papaya plants in the site. (Papaya plants come in three sexes: male, female and hermaphrodite. Male plants are more likely to spread pollen over long distances.)

The test program also demonstrated that while the GM plants were generally virus-resistant, they were still susceptible to other pests. One of the GM strain’s ancestors was less resistant to a common fungal infection, so researchers regularly sprayed the new plants with a fungicide called Dithane. At eight months, the plants were hit by a new pest: leafhoppers. Malathion, a powerful insecticide, kept the bugs at bay for only four months. Then, as a Tropical Fruit Report article by Timothy Wenslaff and Robert V. Osgood noted, “Gradually, the leafhoppers became resistant to Malathion, then to Pyrellin [another insecticide].”

To prevent disaster, the researchers got an experimental permit to apply another insecticide called Provado, which finally brought the leafhopper plague under control--but only after the loss of several trees.

Puna farmers have already reported scattered cases of viruses overcoming the GM papaya trees--especially young trees. But UH agronomist Steve Ferreira claims that, so far, the ringspot virus hasn’t shown any signs of overcoming the resistance to mature trees in any cases that he’s investigated.

Papaya Meets People

Chaos Theory really kicked in, however, when GM papayas encountered non-scientists.

According to Ferreira, the original plan was to cut down all non-transgenic papaya in lower Puna and replace them with GM papaya. After a year, the ringspot virus would have disappeared for lack of a host, and the lucrative Kapoho Solo could have been re-introduced.

Had such a plan been followed, concerns about a GM0-resistant virus evolving would have been minimized, as would concerns about the accidental release of GM genes into the non-GM papaya population. GM and non-GM papaya might never have met.

It just didn’t happen that way.

Hawai`i’s most lucrative papaya market, Japan, refused to accept GM varieties without more thorough testing. Japanese-owned packing houses lobbied the legislature for a quarantine plan using large buffer zones of GM papaya fields to shield fields of Kapoho Solo for the Japanese market. To implement a pilot quarantine project, farmers say, the state took over GM papaya seed stocks that had been slated for distribution through the Papaya Advisory Committee, which had paid for the seed with farmers’ mandatory dues.

Some angry farmers boycotted the PAC; others managed to aquire GM seeds before they were officially released, jeopardizing patent negotiations.

Mike Durkin, the only farmer sued by UH so far for patent infringement, says he planted seeds from GM SunUp fruit he’d found at a local farmer’s market.

“Basically they’re catering to the big guys, the big packing plants, and they don’t even care what happens to the little farmers,” he believes.

Durkin accuses UH officials of Unclean hands.... They can’t come after me for unauthorized use of the material, when they were engaged in greater unauthorized use themselves.” He says that one UH “test field” was actually a commercial farm, and that GM fruit had already been sold to grocery stores before he planted his first seed.

Many Puna farmers refused to comply with the Department of Agricultures’ plan to eliminate non-GM papaya outside the quarantine fields, when there was no assured market for the GM varieties. They pointed out that even if they cut their healthy Solo plants, diseased fields still existed in neighboring districts and feral papaya had spread into to nearby rainforests. Some farmers who did acquire GM seeds ended up cutting the trees down after GM papaya prices plummeted.

Meanwhile, even science seemed to be succumbing to commercial spin-doctoring. As part of her Master’s thesis, Cornell papaya researcher Carol Gonsalves surveyed Puna farmers who had applied for papaya seed. Before her survey results were completely tabulated, she used “trends” in them to write an article entitled “Farmers say ‘Yes!’ to Transgenics.”

Farmers and state officials finally reached a compromise, in which the state would eliminate papayas in abandoned Puna fields and farmers would be patrol their non-GM fields to eliminate new cases of the virus.

So far, this compromise seems to be working. Healthy fields of GM and non-GM papaya are now growing in Puna. But the compromise virtually assures that both the virus and the GM papayas will remain in the environment for the foreseeable future.

Larger Issues

Some of the issues involving GMOs are actually basic to all modern farming. The leafhopper incident, for example, illustrates one concern that applies to both conventional pesticides and GMOs. Unless a spray or a gene splice is 100% effective in stopping the target pest, then the survivors may multiply, spawning a new strain of resistant superpests. That danger is particularly worrisome with another popular line of GMOs: the caterpillar-killing cotton and vegetables spliced with genes from bacillus thuringiensis. Nobody argues that Bt itself is unsafe for human consumption; in fact, organic farmers have been using the bacteria for years to kill caterpillars. But organic farmers only dust with the bacteria for brief periods as needed, reducing pests’ exposure time. Bt GMOs produce insecticide constantly, increasing the chance of a Bt-resistant caterpillar evolving--and depriving organic farmers prematurely of one of their most valuable tools.

Agribusiness has long been criticized for reducing the natural plant and animal diversity that once helped to protect against widespread crop failures. In Hawai`i’s pre-GMO papaya industry, for instance, the vast majority of papayas were a single variety, Kapoho Solo, planted in a single Big Island district. These were ideal conditions for a plague: only a single parasite was needed to devastate an entire industry.

“If you step back and say , oh, maybe the problem is that you have giant monocultures and you’re stressing the environment with pesticides, then your solution, to have a healthy, diverse agricultural environment, solves several problems at once,” believes Crouch.

Ferreira sees GMOs as a way to engineer “artificial diversity” into crops. He says that while Rainbow and SunUp are resistant only to the local strain of ringspot virus, the next generation of GM Papaya will incorporate gene proteins from ringspot strains from all over the world, guarding against new strains of the virus.

Crouch isn’t buying it. “The idea of having resistance to several viruses all in one papaya variety sounds like a disaster to me, because the mechanism that allows the papaya to resist all the viruses will be the same,” she says. “When one virus overcomes that mechanism, then all the viruses will be able to do the same.”

The multiple-gene-transplant strategy may have another danger. Ferreira says the actual ringspot viruses from around the world are being kept at Cornell, to prevent any danger of contaminating Big Island crops. But research reports available on the Web show that the experimental multi-transgenic papayas are being field tested here.

“From what I understand, viruses are able to exchange genetic information by recombination when they both infect the same host,” notes Crouch. Viruses are strings of genes that take over the host cells’ DNA to reproduce more viruses. If one virus overcomes the papaya’s immunity, its genes could mix with the transplanted virus genes already in the papaya cells and produce more diverse viruses.

Ferreira sees large monoculture crops as the price we pay for high food production and mass distribution.

“The issue is quality and uniformity for the person who’s processing,” he says, noting that bakeries require flour that behaves the same way every time, and fabric makers need cotton that is uniformly white.

“That’s a sort of chicken and egg argument,” reacts Crouch. “When did the consumer become so concerned with uniformity? Export-oriented agriculture basically advertised consumers into that position, so they could be educated out of that position into an appreciation of diversity. And in fact, the organic sector of agriculture is the fastest growing market in the world.”

Other questions about GMOs apply to basic rights, freedoms, and necessities. When genes can be patented, who controls the information in one’s own body? Can large corporations, for instance, use gene ownership to gain control of the world’s seed supply, stopping farmers from saving back seed from previous crops? Like any powerful tool, transgenesis may ultimately be as good or dangerous as the social institutions that govern it. Right now, it may be at its most alluring and most frightening, because those social institutions haven’t evolved as fast as the technology.

Meanwhile, back on the ground, some farmers are looking for a market and hedging their bets, as farmers have always done. In addition to his fields of GM SunUp, Mike Durkan is currently harvesting the first commercial papaya crop to be certified by the Hawai`i Organic Farmer’s Association. In the midst of chaos, he seems to have found a sure thing: a Canadian buyer has already purchased the whole crop.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever been able to contract a crop and advance-sell it,” he says.

Archive: GMOs in Hawai'i, Part I: Papaya's Uncertain Savior

(From the Journal, circa 2001)

A nationally broadcast PBS special highlights two scientists’ attempts to “save” Hawai`i’s papaya industry with a genetically modified, virus-resistant papaya. But on the ground salvation is proving more difficult.

The documentary opened with a sweeping helicopter-born view of waves crashing on the Puna Coast. The camera swept inward, then zoomed in....

Hawai`i’s papaya crisis, and the new fruit which was touted as its solution, had become the lead in for Harvest of Fear, a nationally aired PBS documentary on a growing world-wide controversy: the introduction of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) into the human diet and the worldwide ecology. The show’s opening segment focused on Hawai`i-born Cornell researchers Dennis and Carol Gonsalves and their efforts to combat the devastating papaya ringspot virus by introducing a strain of papaya containing genes from the virus itself. “A decade of work created a breakthrough, and perhaps saved an industry,” intoned the show’s narrator.

During the next two hours, the show kept cutting back to Gonsalves’ story, making it a unifying element in two hours of interviews, narrative and commentary on the question of GMOs, which in the past six years have become a common part of most Americans’ diets without most Americans even being aware of it. Genetically modified soybeans and corn have become common ingredients in everything from baby food to cereal to soda pop. Agrochemical giants such as Monsanto have made gene-spliced crops a mainstay: the show featured a Monsanto spokesman declaring that “We stopped all chemical investment...and reinvested in biotechnology.”

The program was a joint production of Frontline and Nova, two of the most prestigious names in the documentary business. It included interviews with scientists involved in GMO research, including a virus-resistant sweet potato in Africa and a strain of corn that could tolerate soil with high concentrations of aluminum in Mexico. It also included arguments from GMO opponents, from Dr. Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists to a spokesperson for an extreme environmental group that had set fire to a university office. But the special still drew some heavy flack from viewers who posted responses on the PBS website. Some comments accused the producers of using scare tactics against GMOs. Even more viewers accused Frontline and Nova of kowtowing to biotech companies. One viewer called the program “the longest commercial I've ever seen.”

Whatever the program’s overall fairness, its presentation on the GM papaya was one-sided by definition. The only interviews that the show featured from the Big Island were of the two scientists and of Big Island farmer Rusty Perry, who participated in the tests of the papaya. The program mentioned that the Gonsalves’ GM papaya had suffered a “setback” when Japan refused to accept the papaya without extensive testing, but no mention was made of any local opposition to the plants.

In fact, the opposition to the papayas has been substantial--and includes not only environmental activists, but many local farmers. Most of the fears about GMOs that the show expressed through the voices of mainland and European opponents--that the plants could accidentally crossbreed with non-GM strains, that the product will not gain acceptance by consumers, and that the targeted pest could build up immunity to the GM plant’s defenses, for instance--also have been expressed locally, in regard to GM papaya and over 50 other genetically engineered crops that have been released in the state.

So far, the claims that GM papayas will save the industry have proven premature. The factors behind this turn of events have as much to do with politics and economics as with science.

“I don’t think that they saved the industry at all. The problem is, if the people on the mainland will even buy it,” believes Ernesto Tagalicud, who heads a dissident farmer’s organization called the Papaya Freedom Fighters. Because of low prices for the GM papaya, called Rainbow, “The people could not produce more, and couldn’t afford to buy fertilizer to maintain their productivity. If you take a picture of the fields on the Kapoho-Pohoiki Road, that will tell you that they haven’t been fertilizing....

“A lot of the farmers did what they were told. They planted Rainbow. And they either cut it down or sold it for next to nothing,” notes community activist Ginny Aste, a past manager of the Papaya Administrative Committee (PAC) and current secretary of the community non-profit Na Poi O Aina. She can empathize with the farmers’ plight. Last fall, the price of Rainbow fell as low as $17 a bin. It has since rebounded somewhat, but still sells for about half of the price of Kapoho Solo, the most popular non-GM papaya. As of early April this year, a bin of Kapoho Solo sold for around $200.

“We kill a premium crop to put out a junk crop that gets barely $17 a bin here?” Aste marvels.

The word “kill” here is quite literal. At one point, the State Department of Agriculture had proposed cutting down and replacing all but a few small fields of quarantined Kapoho Solo with a “sea of transgenic papaya.” Farmers rebelled. In a series of angry meetings last year, they demanded, and finally got, the right to police their own fields for infected trees, instead of having their entire fields cut down. An $800,000 dollar program to eradicate non-transgenic papaya and replace it with transgenic Rainbow was reduced to a program to destroy abandoned fields of diseased papaya.

“We told the industry we would take down all the abandoned fields by the end of December, which we have done,” says Myron Isherwood of the State Department of Agriculture. “It cost us about $35,000.”

Current PAC Manager Emerson Llantero puts a positive spin on Rainbow’s economic debut. “In Hawai‘i, Rainbow is the preferred variety for the consumers,” he maintains “They’re asking for it, they’re actually consuming it more than for the regular varieties.” He says that the transgenic fruit’s low prices have had “something to do with the principles of supply and demand. This is the first crop and we didn’t actually know how it performs, in terms of yield, and we found out that under commercial situations, it yielded more than double the amount than for the regular variety. I’m sure that for next time, since we have the data on the yield, the growers will find a balance....[of] how much acreage they will plant in order to produce what the market demands....”

“I don’t think that rainbow produces that much more fruit per tree,” believes Aste. “It’s simply that they have a surplus of Rainbow because they don’t have a market for it. They were encouraging the farmers to plant because they thought they could break through the market in Japan and sell genetic there. So far, it hasn’t worked.”

Llantero is optimistic that the situation in Japan will change soon. “For Japan, there are two approvals needed to be able to export a rainbow papaya to Japan: for the Ministry of Agricultural and the Ministry of Health,” he says. “We have already received the approval from the Ministry of Agriculture, so we are waiting for the approval from the Ministry of Health.”

“He’s said that for two years,” scoffs Aste.

Charges of inequitable distribution of the new Rainbow seed, allegations that the quarantine zone favored large canning companies over independent farmers, and a University of Hawaii lawsuit against farmer Mike Durkin for planting Rainbow seed without authorization--despite the fact that PAC members were slated to get the seed for free--further eroded the farmers’ trust in the state’s program.

“The issue was losing control over what we had developed,” says Professor Steve Ferreira of the UH-Manoa Department of Plant and Environmental Protection Sciences, of the Durkin lawsuit. “It put Hawai`i in a very uncomfortable situation in having to say, you gave us permission to do this work, but we lost control of the material. The ability for us to do work in the future got put at risk, as well as the ability to control intellectual property. What happened in the case of Durkin’s situation is never tolerated.”

Now that Rainbow has gone into commercial production, however, controlling the spread of the transgenic strain may be impossible, even with lawsuits. Durkin claims that he got his seed from papayas bought at a local farmer’s market. Other farmers worry that even if they plant non-transgenic varieties, pollen from neighboring fields of Rainbow could contaminate their crop. Those fears have been exacerbated by a recent Canadian court case, in which a Canola seed farmer who had planted non-GM seed discovered traces of a patented GM strain in his fields--and Monsanto successfully sued him for patent violation.

Ferreira says that cross-pollination could occur, but that if it did, the GM genes would be detected only in the seeds, not in the flesh of the fruit. But farmers say that could still cut them out of both the Japanese market and the organic market.

Organic papaya is currently not a major crop in Hawai`i, but it could be a potentially lucrative one. Organic crops often command much higher prices than those raised with conventional commercial pesticides (or from GM seeds).

“You can raise an acre of organic papaya and make value-added products, and make more money than you’d make if you raised twenty acres of papayas selling for $17 a bin,” believes Aste.

But agricultural economist Dr. Eileen O’hora-Weir, who inspects crops for the Hawaii Organic Farmer’s Association (HOFA)Hawai`i Organic Farmers’ Association, notes that food grown using biotech and agrochemical product aren’t required to be labeled as such, while organic products have to documented meticulously, placing an unfair burden on the latter.

“We’re taxing the wrong groups of farmers. Right now now we’re having to pay certification fees to prove that we’re following organic practices, and soon we’ll have to be paying GMO testing fees.”

Riding a wave of farmer dissatisfaction, the Papaya Freedom Fighters swept the PAC’s board elections on the island last month, electing their entire slate of candidates. The new members must still be appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. But if they are confirmed, Tagalicud promises a somewhat different direction. Right now, he says, he is “looking at the project, looking up the research.” The farmers want to develop a better marketing plan for the entire industry. And they’re open to looking at possible alternative methods of controlling the virus. “Maybe use a vaccine. Maybe use a fertilizer that suppresses the virus,” Tagalicud suggests.

Llantero is skeptical. “I think industry and the researchers have spent more than enough money to find controls for the virus, and research shows that here is no cure for the virus except for genetic engineering, which has been done,” he maintains. “Further research on controlling the virus--looking for chemicals, whether or organic or non-organic chemicals--to solve the virus problem, will be a waste of money.”

But Aste believes that state officials have not looked seriously at alternative control methods--and that when she and the farmers proposed it in the past, they were ignored. We said, “Fine, cut trees but put 230K toward research, and some of it toward organics. They wouldn’t even listen to us.”

She worries that the state’s plan to use some of the leftover funds from the abortive non-GM papaya eradication plan for “education” would just lead to more of the same. “What are they going to educate about?” she asks. “They’re gong to say ‘Plant genetic.’ Or they’re going to say ‘cut trees if they get the virus.’ We’ve been doing that already. Why would you pay Department. of Agriculture people say the same thing?

Meanwhile, Isherwood says that the papaya farmer’s plan to police themselves seems to be going well: “The industry said that they would take the responsibility for having their members cut newly infected non-transgenic trees down, and by and large, they are doing that. We have a crew that goes out to survey, and the reports that I get back from them are that the growers are taking down the diseased trees on a pretty timely basis--which is a good sign.”

In some senses, the hybrid plan for coping with the virus may be working. Questions about whether the world will accept GM papayas remain unanswered, prices for the new GM papaya have been dismal, and the virus hasn’t been eradicated. But Isherwood says the virus isn’t completely out of control, either. “You can find the virus around,” he says, “but it’s not nearly as bad as in the mid-1990’s so far, definitely.”

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Blackened Friday

Random musings in the wake of Black Friday:

I saw a new commercial yesterday. Since the auto bailout is apparently stalled in Congress, GM is taking matters into its own hands: it’s trying to get a federally-insured bailout from the American people by making itself a bank. The “GMAC Bank” is advertising 4.5 percent interest on its savings accounts--and the ad adds that “your money is safe” because the deposits are insured by the FDIC.

Shortly after seeing the commercial aired, I saw the story on Headline News about a 34-year-old seasonal employee who was trampled to death at the 5 a.m. Black Friday opening of a Wal-Mart store on Long Island. This being America in 2008, there were soon videos of the event up on YouTube. Shoppers outside the store were shrieking--not with horror, but with laughter--as the store’s glass doors caved in.

The police closed down the store, but it reopened three hours later. Wal-Mart’s brief official statement on the “incident” contained an 11-word expression of condolence to the victim’s family buried in CYA language. The entire statement reads:

“We expected a large crowd this morning and added additional internal security, additional third party security, additional store associates and we worked closely with the Nassau County Police. We also erected barricades. Despite all of our precautions, this unfortunate event occurred.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of the deceased. We are continuing to work closely with local law enforcement and we are reaching out to those involved."

Jdimytai D’amour wasn’t the only victim of Black Friday. An 8-months pregnant woman in the same crowd was knocked down and reportedly suffered a miscarriage. Across the country, in Palm Desert, California, gunfire erupted at a Toys’R’Us, reportedly after shoppers got into an argument. Two died.

I hope that Nassau County prosecutes Wal-Mart for inciting a riot. But corporate greed isn’t all to blame for the death of D’amour and the other Black Friday victims, just as corporate greed isn’t the only cause of GM’s problems, or AIG’s, or Lehman Brothers'. GM sold SUVs because millions of Americans decided they needed one (or two, or three), even though most of them had no need whatsoever to go off-road. Millions of people who should have known better bought homes with cheap, risky mortgages. Millions and millions of people bought stuff with credit cards when they shouldn’t have. And hundreds of millions flock to Wal-Mart, even though its mass-marketing strategy relies on selling the most goods with the fewest employees possible, putting thousands of local retail stores out of business and sapping money from local economies. This isn’t just corporate greed. It’s across-the-board American Greed.

And World Greed, for that matter. Toyota, Honda, Subaru, Mazda, Nissan, Volkswagon and Hyundai also happily jumped on the SUV bandwagon, though people don’t seem to notice that. China eagerly banked on American greed to hyper-energize its own economy, even as its factories took away Americans’ ability to pay for their spending spree.

Now, instead of cars and soap and other goods, American commercials are dominated by ads for insurance and credit cards and stockbrokers and America’s chief product is imaginary money.

Maybe greed is not that good, Michael Douglas movie clips notwithstanding. Maybe thrift is an even better strategy. If we got back to real money and got our greed in check, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

Once the speculative frenzy dried up, gas prices suddenly became affordable again. Maybe we shouldn’t buy an SUV or a home if we can’t afford it. Maybe houses will become affordable to more people, if builders aren’t driven by speculation. Maybe somebody will start building cars that don’t cost a year’s wages. Maybe someone will even start offering bus service again. A bus is an even bigger-ticket item than an SUV; GM should make a nice profit on them.

There’s a final irony in Black Friday. If greed drives the American economy, why does the American economy need Christmas? After all, those crowds in the stores aren’t supposed to be buying for themselves; they’re buying for their family and friends.

It would be ironic, indeed, if those shoppers who trampled Jdimytai D’amour’s body did it not out of greed, but out of generosity.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Archive: Of Lawns and Carrion

(This little essay appeared several years ago as one of the "Living Arts" columns that I wrote for Art Centering. I was reminded of it today while weed-eating the yard.
My current house at least minimizes the problem. It's in a tropical rainforest, and much of it is shaded by tree ferns. But threading toward the back of the lot is a semi-sunlit war zone where alien grasses do perpetual battle with native mosses, and I'm siding with the mosses.)

This writer recently had an interesting conversation with a good friend, a young woman who had leased some former cane land in Hamakua for diversified farming, and was resisting the common urge to destroy every plant that she hadn't planted herself. She even made a case for sparing introduced "weeds."

"I hate Weedeaters," she said, pointing out the noise and pollution that mowing machines in general emitted, and how much imported gas they ate. She also noted how little was known about many plants--how wasteful it was to destroy plants indiscriminately, when one didn't even know what undiscovered wonder drug might be lurking within them.

Her final argument was aesthetic.

"How can you decide that a short lawn is more beautiful than a waving field of mature grass?" she demanded.

I pondered on this conversation, then sent her an e-mail, warning her to be careful to whom she expounded her theory. "Somebody's liable to decide you're the Perfect Woman," I told her.

I strongly suspect that close-cropped lawns only exist because women make men mow. I tried arguing the beauties of long grass and dandelions to my ex-wife for years, but she never bought them. She also refused to live anywhere where there wasn't a large lawn. I guess it was a sort of power trip....

Of course, this general dislike of mowing can be overcome if men are bribed with enough compensatory power, such as a large lawn tractor or riding mower. Not only are such machines fun to ride and a macho symbol of success; they also make the mowing time much shorter.

But none of this explains the phenomenon of why anyone finds short lawns pleasing to start with. And in fact, while I hate mowing, I actually rather like short grass.

The origin of the lawn aesthetic may actually be related to our evolution. Homo erectus, one of the earliest species of "true" human, evolved on the expanding savannas of ancient Africa, and was beautifully designed for the a short-grass environment. He/she had superb long distance vision for sighting prey (or early on, most likely, carrion) across long distances in open country; in fact, there are very few creatures besides eagles and vultures who have better eyesight than a human with 20/20 vision. Upright stance also makes members of the genus Homo into living watch towers, setting those superior eyes up higher than those of nearly all other living mammals; we can look an elephant more or less in the eye. In fact, Homo erectus' near-modern height was one of the chief characteristics distinguishing the species from its probable ancestor, Homo habilus, who is now believed to have inhabited a mixed forest/meadow environment.

The short grass of the veldt also makes a wonderful cushion for human feet, which otherwise would have to needed to evolve the equivalent of hooves. This writer found that out a few years ago, during a 120-mile, cross-island backpacking trip from Kamoamoa to Waimea. By the time I reached the cattle country of Mauna Kea, I was footsore indeed, and the stones of the Mana Road were pure torture, despite thick socks and hiking shoes. But walking in the cow pasture alongside the road brought instant relief. Doctor Scholl has never made an cushioned insole that equals a good layer of turf.

While Homo isn't very fast compared to other critters, he/she can manage a ground-eating lope in open country. Homo erectus was thus perfectly designed for spotting a lion munching on a wildebeest a half-mile away, and then getting there in time to at least crack the bones for marrow. Although a single human was no match for a lion or a hyena, a whole phalanx of Homo erecti swinging hunks of tree limbs would have been very daunting indeed, exerting skull-crunching force before jaws or claws could even come within biting or clawing distance.

These advantages disappear in tall grass. Tall grass slows human speed to just short of a crawl. Our long, wedge-shaped feet, so perfect for trotting across a well-grazed savanna, become instantly tangled when they drive themselves into the mat of long grass stems. Tall grass also masks a multitude of other hazards, such as thorny fallen branches, gopher holes, and poisonous snakes. It hides both the prey and the lions, negating our wonderful vision advantage. And it only exists where game is too scarce to graze it down. Besides, most mature grass heads are armed with seeds designed to travel by barbing themselves onto animal fur. Erectus may have solved that problem by losing hair, but we re-introduced it by inventing socks.

All of this certainly jives well with modern outdoor aesthetics. I once read that bonsais bore a remarkable resemblance to the twisted acacias of the African veldt; we traditionally build temples, cities and rich people's mansions on high spots with good views, and certainly we have an aesthetic predilection for sweeping vistas (though this tendency seems stronger in U.S. culture than in the Orient; maybe it got reinforced during American westward expansion, when it was best to build your cabin where you had a clear view of approaching bears, Native Americans, fellow pursuers of Manifest Destiny, and other potentially dangerous creatures).

Despite these ancient roots, the modern lawn is of recent origin. Traditionally, European and English manor houses had enormous grounds (called "gardens" in those days) that were functioning pastures, grazed by lucrative flocks of sheep. The peasants, meanwhile, got crowded into villages where each house may have had a vegetable garden in back, but had no lawn whatsoever. The villagers had to content themselves with the village commons, where they pastured their milk cows. "Commoner" thus literally meant "person with no lawn." Then, with the invention of woolen mills, greedy landowners began closing the commons. That probably led to a major case of veldt-envy, so when modern Western culture got the chance to build spacious, auto-powered cities, everyone moved to the outskirts, then the suburbs, where each family could have their own patch of short grass. But the average modern lawn isn't large enough to support a single sheep, much less a viable flock. Besides, somewhere in there, our color-sensitive eyes also allowed us to develop a passion for beds of bright-hued flowers, and sheep are color-blind.

So there it is. We're evolutionarily predisposed to liking short grass, but not to cutting it; the latter was the wildebeests' job. So now we satisfy our primal longing for the veldt by burning gasoline in artificial grazing animals, and haul garbage bags full of perfectly good fodder off to landfills. The grass, meanwhile, continues growing like crazy, because evolution programmed it to produce huge excesses of greenery in compensation for wildebeest appetites.

But it could be worse. At least our primal aesthetic doesn't demand genuine zebra-carcass lawn ornaments.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The AIG Mess: Insurance Commissioner Schmidt Speaks Out

I just did an article about the possible effects of the AIG bailout on AIG-Hawaii and other AIG holdings in Hawaii. It's posted at the Hawaii Independent Web site. In the process of researching the article, I had a very good interview with Hawaii State Insurance Commissioner Jeffrey P. Schmidt, who's responsible for supervising AIG Hawaii and making sure that any sale of the company doesn't go sour for its thousands of customers. Schmidt volunteered some good insights into the workings of corporations and corporate regulators in general--only some of which could be included in the 1000-word Independent article.

Among other things, Schmidt addressed one problem on which most politicians have been strangely quiet: the corporate feeding frenzy in which one company buys another until you end up with a company such as AIG, which is, in the media buzzword of the day, “too big to fail”--so the government is faced with the choice of either bailing it out or watching the entire economy tank. (It’s ironic that, back when John McCain was constantly comparing himself to Teddy Roosevelt, he didn’t bring up trust-busting. Maybe if AIG had been broken up like Standard Oil or AT&T, the risk might have been spread out a little bit.)

Schmidt mentioned the fear that the federal bailout monies would simply be used by the beneficiaries to buy up still more companies--and he questioned whether that was “a proper use of taxpayers’ money.”

Still, he noted, “In some instances, a larger, sounder company buying out a smaller troubled company is a good thing because it might protect the investors.”

Of course, I observed, it’s only a good thing if the larger company stays sound.

That launched a discussion of the benefits of large companies and small companies. Schmidt saw some value in having both types around. One role of regulators, in Schmidt's view, was to encourage this healthy mix--and make sure it didn’t go toxic: “You need to have regulations and government programs that encourage smaller entrepreneurial companies that come up with new ideas, new ways of doing things, while being closer to the consumer, while providing regulations for the larger companies that allow efficiency of operation It’s a balancing’s not a one and done kind of solution, where you implement the solution, you’re done and you walk away. The market is dynamic, and the government and regulation also have to be dynamic and have to adjust.”

The key, in his mind, was not more regulation or less regulation, but good regulation.

“An example of bad regulation in insurance,” he said, “is when the legislature decides to mandate a decrease in insurance premiums.” Such a rule, he noted, could squeeze the company’s profit margin to the point where it didn’t have enough cash in hand to pay claims.

I brought up the legislation in the 1990s that finally put an end to Hawai‘i’s notorious “no fault” auto insurance, which wasn’t truly no-fault and seemed mainly an excuse to jack up premiums.

“That’s actually a very good example of changing bad regulation to good regulation,” Schmidt remarked.

The old rules, he said, mandated that drivers carry coverage beyond the minimum needed, and Hawai‘i’s idiosyncratic insurance laws discouraged many companies from doing business in the state. The insurance reform acts passed in 1994 and 1998, he said, “changed the law to say that people simply needed to have basic coverage and if they wanted to have more insurance options, they could choose to buy it. Now, we have a very competitive auto insurance market, with lots of companies competing to provide insurance to HI’s consumers.”

In 1998, he noted, Hawai‘i had the fourth highest auto insurance premiums in the country; by 2003, those rates had dropped to 22nd.

Good state insurance regulation, he maintained, helped keep AIG Hawaii healthy while the parent company’s federally-regulate financial subsidiaries poisoned themelves on toxic investments. While AIG Hawaii had profit-and-liability-sharing agreements with other companies in AIG family, those agreements were limited by state requirements that AIG-Hawaii keep enough capital at home to cover possible claims.

Meanwhile, the parent AIG's federally (under)regulated financial service companies were buying up investments under rules that didn’t even require the buyers to know exactly what they were investing in.

“That was the main problem with credit default swaps and securitized subprime mortgages,” Schmidt contended. “People were buying these products without understanding what these products were....There was no regulatory requirement of transparency in the sale of the products--basically letting people know how it works, what the risks are.”

We didn't get into how the professional investment managers could be so stupid as to buy financial pigs in pokes, regulation or not. But I don't really think such decisions could have a rational explanation, anyway. Why do gamblers blow thousands on slot machines when they know the odds are against them?

The difference was that these folks were gambling with other people's money. But then, other people were gambling that they could make payments on exorbitant mortgages when they knew the odds were against them, too. So now the government is betting tax dollars that they can save us from our own collective greed. Is any of that rational?

All I can say about the whole situation is: good luck. And thanks, Mr. Schmidt, for playing your little role in keeping our insurance policies in effect.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Hawai'i'is BioInvasion III: Pu'u Wa'awa'a and the Ungulate Alliances

(This series first appeared in HIJ in 2001)

To understand the battle over Pu`u Wa`awa`a, one might find it useful to understand the tumblebug.

Tumblebugs, also called scarabs or dung beetles, raise their larvae in cattle dung, which they cut from fresh cow patties and shape into small, very-nearly-perfect spheres. They can often be seen at work in this island’s upland pastures—one beetle beneath the ball, kicking, and another riding atop it like a circus acrobat—rolling their prize precariously off to some scarab hatchery site.

Tumblebugs aren’t native to Hawai`i, and no one knows how they got here, but it’s quite obvious why they’re here. Tumblebugs are evolved to go with grazing animals. They help disperse cattle manure, which feeds the grass that the cattle eat. They’re part of a vast and powerful coalition of creatures: the rangeland ecosystem. They’re here because they’re useful to the other members of this coalition, and the other creatures are useful to them.

Of over 4,000 alien species introduced to the Hawaiian Islands since the coming of humans, the vast majority probably are here because another species—usually humans—found them useful, or at least decorative. They formed alliances.

But sometimes alliances shift. Once here, species from chameleons to kahili ginger have quickly found that they didn’t need us anymore, and we found that we didn’t need so many of them. But it’s almost impossible to find a species that some human doesn’t still value. Even campaigns to control coqui frogs and miconia have met with opposition.

Nowhere is this conflict clearer than when ungulates—hooved animals—are involved. Ever since Hawaiians arrived with pigs in their sailing canoes, ungulates have thrived on this island with the active aid of human beings. And the animals themselves have found other allies. Guava, for instance, found feral pigs even more useful than humans for disseminating their seed over huge areas. With guavas and a huge array of other foods available, pigs don’t particularly need humans, though some humans have continued to find pigs useful.

But native Hawaiian ecosystems had evolved without grazing animals, and weren’t prepared to fend off those devastating coalitions. Huge areas of the island have been transformed from native forests into rangeland, and some of the remaining forests have been ravaged by overpopulations of pigs and pig-assisted plant invaders. People who found the native forests pleasing and useful began forming alliances to save it. And the human allies of pigs and cattle and sheep felt threatened.

Coalitions Collide at Pu'u Wa'awa'a

Which brings us to Pu`u Wa`awa`a, a huge tract of state-controlled land in North Kona above Kiholo. For decades, much of the area has been leased as ranch land. But it also holds, by some counts, at least 22 endangered plant and animal species.

On Friday, November 16, the State Board of Land and Natural Resources heard arguments for two competing management plans for Pu`u Wa`awa`a Ranch. One plan was put forth by a Ka`Ahahui o Pu`u Wa`awa`a, a non-profit formed by a coalition of conservationist and native Hawaiian groups, including The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i, Hui`Ohana Mai Pu`uanahulu a me Pu`u Wa`awa`a, Tropical Reforestation and Ecosystem Education Center (TREE), and the Hawai‘i Ecosystems Project of the U.S. Forest Service and Stanford University. In testimony, the proposal also got backing from a roll call of environmental organizations, including the state and local Sierra Club, as well as several wildlife biologists and members of some kama`aina and native Hawaiian families who had been working with the Ka `Alahui in the project’s planning stage.

The competing proposal was advanced by a group called the Wildlife Conservation Association of Hawaii (WCAOH), whose “cooperating organizations” include current leaseholder Pu`uwa`awa`a Cattle Company as well as Summit Hawaii, Inc. (a public relations firm), Pig Hunters of Hawaii, Big Island Bird Hunters, the Hualalai Archery Club and the Volcano Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. Nearly all of the testimony in support of the WCOAH plan came from ranchers and hunters.

Both groups claim to be conservationists. Both would encourage game hunting as a “management tool” and allow continued ranching on the property. But the two plans also differ substantially, both in philosophy and in practice. Ka `Ahahui o Pu`uwa`awa`a’s plan would attempt to reinstate ahupua`a management—the traditional Hawaiian style of land use, which takes a roughly pie-piece shaped slice of the island and manages upland, lowland and ocean resources as an interactive whole. The plan would strongly encourage ecotourism and educational uses, and would emphasize large-scale restoration of native forests. The WCAOH seeks only the upland section of the property, where ranching is viable, and would subcontract the management of the parcel back to the Pu`uwa`awa`a Cattle Company. .

The Ka `Alahui plan would cut the cattle herd approximately in half, and attempt to fence some critical habitat. The WCAOH plan would maintain a larger herd.

Integral to the two groups’ plans are very different views on the roll of hooved animals in the land’s health. One group essentially views ungulates as a major part of the problem. The other portrays them as a major part of the solution.

The Fire Fight

Ka `Alahui’s plan seems to reflect a philosophy similar to those practiced in Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park and the Hakalau National Forest Bird Sanctuary. Though it recognizes the value of cattle in controlling some invasive plant species, and even in reducing the amount of grass for fire control purposes, it essentially regards the coalition of grazers and grass as alien invaders.

“Extensive areas of dry and mesic forests have been altered by human activity all around the state and the world,” the proposal states. “The combination of ungulate grazing, grass invasion, and fire poses a triple threat to these areas; forests will not recover while they are being grazed at commercially viable rates, but the removal of grazing allows grass biomass to accumulate and greatly enhances the likelihood and severity of fire. Fire in turn further encourages grass growth and can inhibit forest regrowth. Grazing/grass/fire interaction is a globally significant threat to biological diversity, and it represents the most substantial challenge to the restoration of Hawaiian forests.”

The WCAOH plan, on the other hand, sees cattle and sheep as essential to fire control.

“We are...acutely aware that if the ranching partners who know this land so well are unable to maintain a viable operation, all the other goals may fail due to lack of well-managed fire control through grazing,” the plan maintains. “Grazing is well recognized by laymen and scientific individuals alike as the primary means of fire control in a very dry area such as this.”

But some biologists question whether ungulates actually work for fire control—and point out that deforestation for pastureland may be one reason the land is drying out.

Among them are Jim Jacobi and Rick Warshauer of the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Biological Service, whose studies provide data that state and federal agencies use for wildlife management.

“Ungulates have caused the reduction and elimination of native woody and herbaceous vegetation, which result in the drying of the landscape and the spread of alien grasses, both of which foster fire,” maintains Warshauer.

Jacobi agrees: He notes that fires are more common in grasslands than in forests, because forests retain more moisture and shade out flammable grass species. Grazing doesn’t prevent fires, he believes, “unless the ungulates have reduced it down to dust, pretty much, and that’s not good grazing.”

He cites a recent fire at Pu`u Loa, on the southeast side of Mauna Kea, as an example.

“This was an area that was heavily grazed down to very short grass,” he notes. “It [the fire] carried even on the places that it was basically eaten really down to nothing.... The problem is, dry areas will burn. The solution is to reduce the opportunities for fires to start and to have the means to put them out quickly.”

The WCAOH cites past fire history, including a fire in an area called the Kiholo-3 paddock, which was kept free of cattle for six years. “Then a fire reached the area and destroyed it so any restoration was in vain,” states the proposal.

But biologists note that forest restoration requires a much longer time frame than six years, especially in dry areas where trees grow slowly.

“It’s a fiction,” says Warshauer, of the idea works as a method of fire control. “It’s often used to justify grazing where alternative land uses have been proposed.”

Different Ungulates, Different Roles

Pu‘u Wa‘awa‘a is a near-perfect microcosm of larger battle over ungulates that is going on all over the island. The parcel holds all three of the most common ungulates: sheep, cattle and pigs. In their normal habitats, each plays occupies a different niche. Cattle normally subsist mainly on grass. Sheep are browsers that often serve as the shock troops for advancing rangeland, by clearing brush and trees that would otherwise shade out the grasses. Pigs are omnivorous grubbers, rooting through the soil for roots and worms, but also opportunistically eating just about anything else that comes their way.

Environmentalists say evidence is overwhelming that all three ungulates contribute heavily to the decline of native forests. But some hunters and ranchers claim differently.

“Basically, there’s a preservation environmental side that says all ungulates are alien species and should be eradicated,” says hunting advocate Bob Duerr. But he notes a lack of studies on the possible benefits that game animals cause for the local environment. “The problem’s not a public wildlife official...who says, ‘Hey, you know what? Let’s take a scientific peer review, and let’s take a look at the positive aspects of pigs in the forest.”

When questioned, wildlife managers and biologists often say that they’re happy to listen to hunters, and value hunters’ experience with the land. The problem is that some the hunters’ claims just don’t seem to match the data already coming in from the field.

Sheep vs. Mamane

For instance, feral sheep and Mouflon sheep—and hybrids, since the two interbreed freely—have long been attacked by conservationists, especially for the damage they have done to upland dry forests such as the mamane forests of Mauna Kea. Since the late 1970s, under a court order obtained by conservation groups, the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW) as mounted a so-far-unsuccessful effort to eradicate feral sheep on Mauna Kea.

“They’ve shot most of the animals they’ve seen. But twice a year, they go out and shoot similar numbers to what they shot before,” observes NBS biologist Paul Banko, who studies populations of palila, an endangered bird that feeds mainly on mamane seeds in the upland dry forests. He admits that his studies aren’t designed to document the damage that the sheep have been doing to the mamane forest, because “their effects on the habitat has been thoroughly documented for years.”

But WCOAH founder Lloyd Case claims disagrees with that conventional wisdom. “It’s all documented that palila use the wool from the sheep to line their nest,” he notes, for example. “No there’s no more sheep, so more of the young birds will die.”

Warshauer and Jacobi scoff at the notion that sheep are vital to palila fledglings: “What did they do before the sheep got there?” asks Warshauer.

“Naturally they [palila] use lichens,” says Jacobi. “In all the nest studies, there’s been a very limited use of sheep wool. It’s a not a major component of the nest.”

Case also maintains that the sheep benefit the mamane by pruning them back. “If the sheep browse them and keep them clean, you get better growth,” he maintains. “The mamane seeds stick in the wool and they spread them around.”

The biologists shake their heads at that claim. To them, it contradicts not only overwhelming evidence on the ground, but also the vast weight of evolutionary history. “Grazing by ungulates is really a severe trauma,” says Warshauer. “The native plants evolved in the absence of anything larger than a few flightless birds.”

Biologists note the structure of grass, for instance, which evolved under the constant pressure of grazing animals. The stems are jointed, so the tops break off before the plant is pulled up by the roots. The roots form a tough, dense, interlocking mat, so they’re hard to pull up. Many grasses spread by runners when grazers are present; when the herds are away, they take advantage of that absence to send up seed heads with millions of seeds, designed to stick to the grazer’s hair and “hitchhike” when the grazers return.

Native plants, which evolved without plant-eating mammals, lack these adaptations. They have no thorns, no chemicals that make them taste bad. When cattle and sheep were introduced, they ate the local plants like ice cream. The result was natural selection in favor of the grazing-adapted invaders. In many places, the only survivors were mature trees whose whose branches grew out of reach. Smaller trees such as mamane (Sophora Chrysophylla) were especially hard-hit.

After DOFAW began sheep eradication on Mauna Kea, scientists such as Banko and Jabobi saw signs that the mamane forest was starting to recover. Banko notes that in the upland Mauna Kea Forest Reserve now, “About one of three mamane trees is less than 20 years old. That’s actually a fairly significant response of the forest.”

Case maintains that the explosive growth of grass in turn provides excellent cover for rats, which eat bird eggs and nestlings. But the wildife researchers argue that all three invaders—rats, grass, and ungulates, are problems must be dealt with, piece by piece.

“It’s hard for me to imagine that the best solution is to bring back the original problem,” says Banko.

The Bond Between Hunter and Hunted

An even more emotional issue than cattle and sheep are feral pigs. The handbook Hawai’i’s Invasive Species calls pigs “the number one economic threat to watersheds, damaging the islands’ freshwater sources.” In addition to spreading weed species; pigs root up native vegetation and hollow out fern logs, creating places where water can collect and breed avian-malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

Despite all this, some hunters claim they’re good for the forest.

Case maintains that where he finds the most birds is also where he finds the most pigs. “They (scientists) don’t realize that the more you kill our animals, the more the birds move,” he claims. “They get their minerals and stuff from the ground. The pigs root the ground up for them.”

But biologists point out, again, that native birds somehow solved the problem of getting minerals long before the first pigs arrived with the Polynesians. And they point to dramatic recovery of the forest undergrowth in areas where fences have been fenced out—the rainforest around Thurston Lava Tube in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, for instance.

They also note the pigs’ potential for explosive population growth. Where reproduction is concerned, pigs are more like rodents than other ungulates. Each sow is capable of suckling up to twelve piglets at a time, which means that without considerable hunting pressure, a forest can be rapidly overrun.

Complicating the issue of pig control are some very deep emotional bonds. Pigs are entwined in native Hawaiian mythology; a pig god was both Madame Pele’s consort and chief rival. For native Hawaiian culture, pigs were the only ungulate, a vital source of animal meat in a protein-scarce environment.

For some local hunters, they still are.

“When our economy goes down, we live off the land,” maintains Case. “And now, more than ever, we turn back to the land. These animals right now are worth more to us. They’re our money in the bank.... When I never had [a] job, these animals fed my family.”

Decisions for the Top Predators

That history was very much in the minds of hunters and ranchers at the November 16 hearing. They repeatedly testified about the importance of preserving “our way of life.” But Ka `Ahahui supporters countered that many of their members were also from kama`aina families—and that for generations, ranchers and hunters had been virtually the sole users of much of the ahupua`a, and that for most of that period, the forest had degraded.

A DOFAW staff report recommended that the Ka `Ahahui proposal be adopted, with some changes—partly because Ka `Ahahui already had considerable grant funding in place. But after a day of testimony and two failed amendments, the Board adjourned without a resolution on the issue—sending both sides back to beef up their plans for another round.

But what both sides, and all island residents, will also have to cope with is the essential imbalance that humans and their biological allies have created. The range ecosystem and the pigs are designed to be kept in check by predators such as wolf packs and mountain lions. Without a top predator, the ungulate populations run amok. Without ungulates, the grasses run amok. The only top predator on this island is us. Until humans figure out how to responsibly manage that role—whether by hunting or by other means—Hawai`i’s landscape will remain explosively unstable.

Hawai'i's BioInvasion II: The Frog-Caffeine Dilemma

(This series first appeared in HIJ in 2001)

The Island of Hawai‘i may be about to receive a massive jolt of caffeine. And it won’t be from Starbucks.

The State Department of Agriculture and Department of Land and Natural Resources are in the process of implementing a program to control the spread of Caribbean land frogs, especially the coqui frog, which has gained a noisy foothold in many Big Island communities. A key component of this campaign is an emergency EPA permit to spray with a caffeine concentrate that is 55 times as powerful as normal coffee.

The spray would be available for use by certified applicators in homes, commercial nurseries, forests, farms, lawns, and golf courses, and may become mandatory for plant shipments from commercial nurseries in frog-infested areas of the island. Because of the “emergency” nature of the application, the permit has bypassed normal EPA testing requirements. DOA officials admit that they have almost no scientific data on what effects such massive caffeine dosages would have on plants, pets, birds, reptiles, insects, or humans.

Critics of the program call it an over-reaction and worry that the cure may be a bigger problem than the disease. Supporters, including some environmentalists, say it’s an appropriate reaction, given the island’s long and woeful experience with invasive plants and animals. They say the tiny frogs with big appetites, big voices and a very high reproductive rate may be poised to repeat the history of mongooses, cane toads, rats, mosquitoes, and a long line of other biological invaders.

The frog-caffeine controversy has raised fresh debates about the dilemma of invasive species in general. In most of the islands’ lowlands, native species survive only as remnants, not as an intact ecosystem. Some areas are still forested with an overstory of native ‘ohi‘a trees, but the native understory has been crowded out by invaders such as waiwi (strawberry guava), yellow guava, and tibouchina. In some areas “weed trees” such as African tulip trees, gunpowder trees and banyans are pushing out the ‘ohi‘a trees themselves. In the island’s few freshwater or brackish water wetlands, imported cattle egrets are far more common than Hawaiian coots. Anchialine ponds—those delicate, clear brackish-water pools along the ocean’s edge—have changed into scummy puddles, as the native shrimp that controlled algae growth are gobbled up by introduced aquarium fish. Avian-malaria-carried by imported mosquitoes has wiped out most native birds in the lowlands, and the descendants of released caged birds such as Indian minas, Japanese white-eyes and Java sparrows have taken their place. One expert has estimated that on average, a new alien species arrives in the islands once every 18 days.

Given this massive problem and the state’s very limited resources, questions about invasive species start to resemble those involved in triage process at an overloaded MASH unit. Which case is most urgent? Who can be saved? Which cases are hopeless?

This is Making Hawaii Sick”

The coqui is a good example of that process in action. The tiny frog has actually been in the islands for over a decade, but in the past two or three years the population has exploded exponentially. Coquis go through no tadpole stage; they lay their eggs on dry land and are born as miniature frogs. As a result, they are not limited to areas near ponds, and can spread rapidly, hitch-hiking on plants from infested nurseries and discount stores. A single breeding pair can quickly breed into thousands. Residents in infested areas complain about the frogs’ extremely loud breeding calls; environmentalists worry that if the coquis become established in the island’s remaining native forests, they will threaten native insects and compete with native birds for food. The frogs have already appeared as high as the Volcano area, well above the altitude limits of their normal range in Puerto Rico and well within the range of Hawai‘i’s remaining viable upland forests.

But the frogs also have their supporters. Chief among them is Sydney Ross Singer, founder of the Coqui Hawaiian Integration and Re-education Project.

“I’m a medical anthropologist,” says Singer. “I challenge the cultural things that make people sick. And when I heard about this thing, I said, this is making Hawai‘i sick.” Singer claims that there is no actual medical evidence that the frogs present a health problem by keeping people awake at night—but that by making that allegation, anti-frog forces can convince people that they are being affected, essentially creating a problem by saying there is one. Likewise, he says, “propaganda” about the frogs may affect real estate values more than the presence of the frogs themselves otherwise would, and the only threat to agriculture that the frogs present is the danger of an agricultural quarantine imposed to prevent the frog’s spread. In fact, Singer maintains, the frogs may benefit agriculture by eating insect pests.

“It (the coqui) can’t do anything intrinsically to damage the economy unless it’s done by the eradicators,” maintains Singer.

Singer has accused environmental groups and state officials of whipping up “frog mania” in order to get funding for the monitoring and eradication programs.

Long time environmental activist Nelson Ho takes issue with Singer’s reasoning. Ho works with Operation Miconia, whose Miconia Hotline has also taken on the job of helping to monitor the frogs’ spread. “The people who are doing the research already have lots to do,” Ho says. “The people who are doing Operation Miconia might be taken away from miconia work because the Department of Agriculture does not have enough personnel to handle this.”

Miconia is another invasive species, a fast-spreading tree that has wiped out much of the native forest in Tahiti and is threatening to spread into Big Island rainforests as well.

Ironically, one criticism leveled at the DOA’s frog control proposals is that they may stretch the department’s limited quarantine resources to the breaking point. “They don’t have the inspectors, or even a driveway big enough for how long the trucks would have to be in there,” believes Susan Hamilton of Plant It Hawaii, a local fruit tree nursery.

Caffeine and Quarantines

The DOA’s proposals were still in the draft stage at press time for this article. But according to Domingo Carvalho, Invertebrate and Aquatic Biota Specialist for the DOA’s Plant Quarantine Branch, the program to limit the frog’s spread would probably include several elements. Plant shipments would be inspected by spraying samples with a pyrethrum-based pesticide, which doesn’t kill the frogs, but is known to irritate them, causing them to jump from the plants and be discovered. Infected shipments would then have to go through an approved treatment before shipping. At this point, the only approved treatment would be with the super-caffeine solution.

“What we’re hoping is that the nurseries that are currently infested with frogs...can get rid of them prior to this inspection,” adds Carvalho.

State officials held a series of meetings with Hawai‘i Island nurserymen last month about the quarantine plan. Some members of the industry criticized the plan as too costly, too impractical—and too late.

“I do not believe there is an attempt to put us out of business in these strained economic times, but the regulations and procedures outlined to the Big Island Association of Nurserymen at Wednesdays meeting could do just that,” wrote Hamilton to a state official, after one such meeting. Hamilton went on to outline her own suggested six-point “smart plan” for a more comprehensive, coordinated effort to deal with invasive species. Among her recommendations were more effective inspections of plants entering the state; better education for nurserymen and their customers; inspection and eradication in frog-infested retail facilities; inspection of interisland barges and other modes of transport, and careful selection of target areas for eradication efforts. She pointed out that while Lava Tree State Park, for instance, was heavily infested, the frogs there were unlikely to travel anywhere else, while a frog-infested nursery or discount store was likely to disseminate hitch-hiking frogs with their plants.

Hamilton felt that the quarantine rules on interisland plant shipments were “too restrictive.”

“Our nursery drives to Lanikaula before every dock or plane shipment is sent,” she noted. “The time spent there cannot exceed a certain length of time, as all dock orders have to be down at the dock before noon. Some days we have three truckloads of palettes. We must wrap them to secure them for transport. Are we to unwrap each palette so that you may spray “hot shot” [a pyrethrum spray] on every load to see no frogs emerge? And then palette wrap them again at the inspection? What will the cost be of this extra step and time on the inspectors? I know it will put undo economic pressure on our nursery, as well as many others.”

Instead, Hamilton suggested quarterly inspections for the nurseries, with frog-free nurseries being allowed to ship interisland without restrictions.

Carvalho noted that some of the inspections might actually be performed at the nurseries, rather than at the docks or the quarantine facilities.

Choosing Among Unknowns

At the heart of the coqui/caffeine controversy, as with many invasive species issues, is a basic question: which is more dangerous and costly, the invaders or the countermeasures? Bio-pollution, or chemical pollution?

And too often, troublingly, the answer is “We don’t know.”

In the case of coqui vs. caffeine, the unknowns are even more troubling than usual. Singer points out that the potential of the coqui to damage the environment is still largely a matter of speculation: that no studies have been done of the affects of frog noise on human health, for instance. And since the frogs are not known to have invaded the native upland forests in significant numbers, Singer maintains, their effect on native habitat is unproven.

But Ho and other environmentalists maintain that the predictions about the coqui are more than mere speculation; they are based on hard experience with other creatures.

“There is concern that the frog exhibits the characteristics of an invasive species,” Ho maintains.

“Invasive species” is a specific name, applied to creatures that exhibit specific characteristics. According to Hawai`i’s Invasive Species, edited by George W. Staples and Robert H. Cowie, those characteristics include adaptability to different habitats; tolerance of a wide range of conditions; the ability to “eat and survive on a diversity of food sources”; the ability to live in environments disturbed by human or natural events; easy dispersal to new areas; rapid reproduction; and long or year-round breeding seasons. Invasive species are classic examples of old-fashioned Darwinian evolution; they simply out-reproduce and out-compete their more specialized rivals.

The coqui has most of these characteristics. To biologists, that spells trouble.

But there are also a huge number of unanswered questions about the proposed caffeine treatment.

“I know that frogs and snails and slugs have been identified as sensitive to caffeine. Any other species, I really don’t know,” admits DOA Pesticide Program Manager Robert Boesch Boesch.

The DOA and DLNR did subcontract for tests on the caffeine and frogs, says Boesch, but “that was primarily to identify chemicals that could be used to control the frogs.” One role of the applications under the emergency permit, he says, will be to study the caffeine’s effects on “non-target species.”

The super-caffeine solution’s effects on plant life are also largely unknown.

“We did find studies relating to an onion root, where apparently they were looking at caffeine’s effects on mitosis [cell division], says Boesch, “and there were instances of abnormal mitosis, which would suggest that it could be phytotoxic [toxic to plants].” Boesch suggests that before applying the chemical to large groups of plants, growers should test it on small sample plots first.

The EPA did identify four human populations for whom the super-caffeine formula might pose special health risks: Pregnant women, toddlers under two, people with hypertension or high blood pressure, and children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

“If they’re directing sprays upwards into trees, any sensitive person will have to be kept at least 100 feet away from the area that’s being treated. That way, we should be able to manage the risk to acceptable levels,” maintains Boesch. The EPA permit allows only properly certified professionals wearing protective clothing to apply the caffeine, and restricts access for 24 hours after spraying. But Boesch admits that there is no data on how long the caffeine requires to dissipate after it is applied.

Uplands vs. Lowlands

In asking whether the invader or the treatment is the higher risk, the questioner may also need to ask which area he or she is most concerned about: the surviving native forests or the human-dominated lowlands.

For environmentalists and biologists struggling to help the native forest survive the assaults of pigs and mongooses, rats and yellowjackets, faya trees and kahili ginger, yet another invader could prove the final straw that causes the whole ecosystem’s collapse.

But in the lowlands, that collapse has already happened. If the upland forests are a battleground, then the lowlands are a biological riot, where hundreds of invasive species compete with each other for every inch of ground that’s not paved or cultivated. For environmentalists, there often seems nothing left there to protect.

For the Sierra Club’s David Kimo Frankel, the choice seems clear.

“The coqui is a far greater threat to the Hawaiian environment than caffeine, because the coqui as an alien species disrupts the native ecosystem,” he maintains. “I know that the review [for the caffeine permit] was shorter. That’s true. The emergency had to be justified, though. It is an emergency. It already may be too late.”

But for lowland residents, the invaders are more familiar than native life forms, and sometimes more cherished. When four acres of mostly non-native jungle were bulldozed near the heart of Pahoa recently, for instance, it raised a storm of protests. But residents seemed to have relatively little to say when another development claimed nearly 8 acres of ‘ohi`a trees on the edge of town.

And a little-understood pesticide applied next door may seem a more urgent than protecting birds and insects that residents have never seen.

Which is more important? What can be saved, and at what cost?

Until Hawai‘i can develop better safeguards against invasive species entering the islands to start with, residents will keep facing those dilemmas.