Friday, August 20, 2010

The story of Hawaii’s genetically modified papaya

Genetically modified papayas at Hilo farmer's market

Hawaii's genetically modified (GM) varieties of papaya were developed by Dr. Dennis Gonsalves,a native Hawaiian raised on a sugar plantation in Kohala on the island of Hawaii. While at Cornell University, he developed and commercialized genetically modified papaya plants to protect Hawaiian papayas from a deadly virus. Now more than 75% of the papayas grown in Hawaii are his GM Rainbow variety papayas. 

Dr. Gonsalves created GM papaya to save Hawaii's papaya industry from the ringspot virus which showed up in Hawaii in the 1940’s. The virus destroyed papaya production on Oahu in the 1950’s causing the papaya industry to move to Puna on the island of Hawaii in the 1960’s. Farmers in Puna now produce 95% of Hawaii’s papaya. Dr. Gonsalves began his research to develop a genetically engineered papaya resistant to the ringspot virus in the 1980’s and in 1992 a field trial was started on Oahu. By 1994, half of Puna’s papaya acreage was infected with the ringspot virus, but the genetically altered SunUp and Rainbow varieties of papaya were available by then to replace them. In 1997, the EPA and FDA granted approval for the sale of the GM papaya varieties. Exports of GM papayas started to the US mainland, Canada, and China.

But being able to sell to the Japanese market is critical to the success of Hawaii's papaya industry. Sales of Hawaiian papaya to Japan were $15 million in 1996 but dwindled to $1.2 million in 2009 due to the shortage of non-GMO papaya.

In 2002, Dr. Gonsalves left Cornell to become director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo, Hawaii. After joining the USDA, he focused on getting Japan to approve the GM papaya varieties. Japan's process relies on scientific data, rather than being a political process. In April 2010, Japan gave its approval for the import of genetically modified (GM) papaya from Hawaii. The fruits will be available in Japanese supermarkets this year.

The hope is that the recent approval of GM papaya exports to Japan will restore Hawaii’s papaya export market. However, Japan requires that the GM papayas be labeled as a genetically modified food. Thus far, Hawaii papaya growers have not had to notify their consumers about the GM status of their papayas. The success of GM Hawaiian papaya exports is dependent on the consumers in Japan being willing to buy a GM labeled product and pay the same as a non-GM papaya from other parts of the world.

Approval of GM papaya by the European Union and other parts of Asia has not gone as well. Greenpeace has been actively attacking GM papaya and raiding GM research labs in Thailand to destroy the plants. Some blame them for cutting down thousands of GM papaya trees on Oahu and the Big Island this year.


Anonymous said...

So how can we tell if we're eating the "GM" or not I'd prefer to eat something natural not mutated...

JRT said...

Leina: The Papaya trees are vaccinated against a viral disease just like your are except that to vaccinate a plant is a somewhat different process but the result is the same. The DNA of the virus is incorporated into the plant just as the DNA of the flu virus is incorporated into your body when you get a flu shot. Do you think of yourself as mutated when you get a flu shot?

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