Hawaii, August 3, 2005 (ENS): Before genetically
engineered algae is grown to produce pharmaceuticals
on the island of Hawaii, an environmental assessment
should be conducted, say four citizen groups who filed
a lawsuit Tuesday asking a state court to order the
The lawsuit filed against the state Board of Agriculture
challenges the agency's approval of a permit to allow
the production of genetically modified microorganisms
on the Big Island.
The groups 'Ohana Pale Ke Ao and Kohanaiki 'Ohana,
as well as GMO Free Hawaii, and the Sierra Club, Hawaii
Chapter, represented by Earthjustice, are claiming that
the microorganisms are potentially dangerous.
The state permit allows biotech company Mera Pharmaceutical,
based in Kailua-Kona, to import and produce in a state
operated research facility here seven novel strains
of biopharmaceutical algae genetically modified to produce
unapproved experimental drugs.
"The law requires the state to fully examine the
potential impacts of bringing these alien, drug-laden
algae to our islands," said Earthjustice attorney
Isaac Moriwake. "The government and public need
to understand the potential impacts and available alternatives
before this experiment begins."
The lawsuit seeks to compel the Board of Agriculture
(BOA) to comply with the Hawaii Environmental Policy
Act by assessing the potential environmental impacts
of the project. The suit also seeks to invalidate the
BOA's approval and stop the project from proceeding
until the review process is complete.
The genetically engineered strain of algae have never
been introduced anywhere outside the laboratory. The
U.S. Food and Drug Administration has never approved
a pharmaceutical substance produced by the genetically
engineered algae for human consumption by, nor are their
effects on humans and the environment known.
The algae used in the experiments, Chlamydomonas, is
a common microorganism that exists in water, soil, and
on snowfields, can be transported in the air, and can
survive a variety of harsh conditions in a dormant stage.
Native strains of Chlamydomonas are known to exist in
Hawaii, which experts say are unique to these islands.
The groups contend that this raises concerns of the
biopharm algae not only spreading on its own, but also
crossing with the native strains.
Mera Pharmaceutical seeks to manufacture large quantities
of the biopharm algae for experimental purposes outdoors,
in large plastic containers called "photobioreactors"
at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority
(NELHA), a state owned technology park on the Kailua-Kona
coast. Such large-scale, outdoor production compounds
the risks of escape and contamination of the surrounding
environment, the plaintiff groups contend.
"Islands are fragile ecosystems. We've seen salvinia
molesta on Lake Wilson, coqui frogs on the Big Island,
and invasive algae along the shores of Maui and Waikiki.
We do not want to see something like that happen on
the Kona coastline," Karen Eoff, president of Kohanaiki
'Ohana. "It is imperative that environmental review
"Algae have been the building blocks of life on
Earth for three billion years," said Jeff Mikulina,
director of the Sierra Club. "Surely we can spend
a few extra months ensuring that genetically altering
algae won't have unintended consequences."
Mera's chief business is the production of nutraceuticals
from microbial aquatic plants and the publicly traded
company already produces one at Kona.
AstaFactor, Mera's first commercial nutraceutical,
is derived from Haematococcus microalgae. It is a concentrated
source of natural astaxanthin, found in fish and seafood
species, "an effective anti-inflammatory and a
powerful antioxidant," the company says.
Recognized for their potential medical and nutritional
value, microbial aquatic plants can produce valuable
products, says Mera, but the plants have been ignored
because they have been impossible to grow at commercial
scale until the company developed and patented closed-system
The microalgae are grown in photobioreactors where
conditions such as temperature, light and nutrient levels
are controlled by computer. These allows the production
of a large number of species at scale reliably, efficiently
and at high quality, the company says.
"After maximizing growth in the closed photo-bioreactors,
the algae are transferred to environmentally controlled
ponds," the company explains on its website.
The plaintiff groups are particularly concerned because
the NELHA facility lies in a sensitive coastal environment
that is cherished and regularly used by local residents,
including Native Hawaiians. A popular camping ground,
surfing spot, and beaches are located nearby, as well
as numerous wetlands and brackish ponds which host native
and endangered species and support legally protected
Native Hawaiian cultural practices of gathering and
A national park is also located nearby. Established
in 1978 for the preservation, protection and interpretation
of traditional native Hawaiian activities and culture,
the 1,160 acre Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical
Park is the site of an ancient Hawaiian settlement.
Resources include fishponds, house site platforms, petroglyphs,
a stone slide, and a religious site.
"These Chlamydomonas algae are a foundation of
life in all water and soils. The large-scale, outdoor
production of their genetically modified forms practically
rolls out the red carpet for their release into the
environment," said Nancy Redfeather of 'Ohana Pale
Ke Ao. "We need to exercise more prudence and precaution
before introducing such drug-producing algae into our
pristine Hawaiian ecosystems."
This case marks the first time ever the state has had
to make the sole decision whether to allow the import
of a genetically engineered organism into Hawaii. The
federal agencies usually responsible for regulating
biotech organisms - the U.S. Department of Agriculture,
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S.
Food and Drug Administration - have all disclaimed jurisdiction
over the biopharm algae.
Chlamydomonas is on the state Department of Agriculture's
list of restricted organisms under its quarantine laws.
Further, the agency's staff have determined that the
biopharm algae posed an "above moderate risk,"
which means that the Board of Agriculture must approve
The Department of Agriculture made this determination
based on the lack of federal oversight, the agency's
lack of experience with genetically engineered algae,
concerns regarding large-scale production outdoors,
and the "unknown effects on the environment if
Also, because the biopharm algae project will use state
lands, it triggered the requirement of environmental
review under the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act (HEPA).
The Board of Agriculture, with public participation,
must evaluate the impacts of a project and its alternatives
in an environmental assessment. If the assessment indicates
that the project may have a significant effect on the
environment, a more extensive environmental impact statement
must be conducted.
At several hearings on the Mera proposal, the Board
of Agriculture received public testimony from concerned
individuals throughout the state and even from the mainland,
including local residents, Native Hawaiians, farmers,
businesspeople, doctors, and scientists, who questioned
the project and urged the Board to examine the potential
impacts in a HEPA document.
At the second meeting on June 26, 2005, the Board of
Agriculture approved the application without mentioning
the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act.
"Shortcutting the legal process does nothing to
ensure the protection of public health and the environment,
or to foster public confidence in such projects,"
said Moriwake. "The state should just comply with
the law by fully examining the potential impacts of
this project in full public view."
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2005. All