While attending college at the University of California, Berkeley, Dr. Susan Miyasaka was deeply moved by accounts of global famines. Her sentiments prompted her to become an agronomist a scientist who studies large scale crops.
“I’ve always focused primarily on edible crops because I’m interested in helping to feed people,” she says.
As a native of Oahu, Susan has witnessed the demise of sugarcane and pineapple crops that once defined agriculture in the Islands. For the past 25 years, she’s been working at the University of Hawaii’s Komohana Research and Extension Service in Hilo, looking for alternatives to those plantation crops.
Her current research focuses primarily on Okinawan purple sweet potatoes, which have only recently begun to be grown on the US mainland, and taro, a traditional Hawaiian root vegetable. One of her former graduate students successfully genetically engineered a variety of Chinese taro to resist taro leaf blight, a major threat to the crop.
“The controversy generated by anti-GMO activists shut down the research before it went to field trials. There were several attempts at the state Legislature to pass a moratorium or outright ban on genetic engineering of taro research, although none passed. In this negative, emotional climate, it was not possible to obtain funding or permits to continue the research and the tissue-cultured plants were destroyed.
“I think it’s really too bad because yes, a lot of effort went into producing those lines. Genetic engineering is an art, as well as a science, especially when dealing with tissue cultures, and I’m not sure we could produce those same lines again.”
Despite that setback, Susan continues to pursue her research in taro leaf blight resistance, using conventional breeding methods. “We may have some promising varieties…that might be able to be released commercially in a couple of years,” she says.
She also continues to speak on behalf of biotechnology in often-heated political forums, such as the recent Hawaii County Council hearings on legislation imposing a GMO crop moratorium. (The bill was approved, but has since been overturned by the courts.)
“It’s not easy for a scientist to appear in a political arena,” Susan says. “But I felt that I had to provide the scientific facts. So now they’re out there, whether they choose to believe them or not.”