from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin

Hawaii won’t ban genetically altered coffee, a decision that worries growers of the Kona coffee brand who want to keep it pure.

State lawmakers shelved a bill recently that would have prohibited growing genetically modified coffee in Hawaii until 2012. Instead, they want to order a study into the science, benefits and dangers of genetically enhanced crops.

Coffee farmers are worried that genetically modified coffee could contaminate expensive Kona blends, which are only grown on Hawaii’s Big Island and exported worldwide.

“The fact that you’re creating a ‘frankenfood’ is very scary. What will it do to my morning cup of coffee?” asked John Langenstein, sales manager for Koa Coffee Plantation.

Coffee drinkers in Japan and parts of Europe wouldn’t buy Kona coffee if it becomes mixed up with genetically changed coffee, causing it to lose its value and uniqueness, Langenstein.

Others argue that genetically modified coffee poses little danger to Kona coffee because it would be grown on a different island and could benefit the economy.

One company plans to begin planting a special kind of modified coffee on Oahu, likely early next year, that grows decaffeinated naturally.

“Our field trials would have absolutely no effect on Kona coffee, so it doesn’t really make sense to ban field trials of transgenic coffee across the whole state,” said John Stiles, chief executive officer for Integrated Coffee Technologies Inc. “We don’t want to be known as the anti-technology state.”

Hawaii lawmakers won’t even hear the proposal to impose a moratorium on genetically modified coffee.

Instead, they’ll form a task force to consider the merits of genetically modified coffee, labeling effectiveness and consumer education, said Sen. Jill Tokuda, chairwoman for the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Hawaiian Affairs.

“We need more time to really examine these issues and understand all of the facts,” said Tokuda (D, Kaneohe-Kailua). “When you have a moratorium on research, that sends a negative message out.”

A decaffeinated coffee bean could double Hawaii’s overall coffee production, invigorate the agriculture industry and create new jobs, Tokuda said.

Even though the genetically altered decaffeinated coffee would be grown on Oahu, far from the Big Island’s Kona coffee fields, its seed could spread through human dispersal, said Una Greenaway, whose Kuaiwi Farm Kona Old Style coffee won the top prize at last year’s annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival’s cupping contest.

“We really need to protect our industry. If those plants come to Kona, we’d be in serious economic trouble,” she said at the state Capitol, where she was joined by a few other coffee growers.

Lisa Gibson, president of the Hawaii Science and Technology Council, said legislators should avoid passing laws limiting scientific study.

“It’s a very slippery slope to begin legislating research,” Gibson said. “If we’re going to diversify our state, it needs to be based on knowledge.”