KAILUA-KONA, 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 assessment.
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
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
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 access.
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
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
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 project.
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 accidentally
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
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
"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 Rights Reserved.