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Attack On Hawaii’s Genetically Modified Papayas Sparks Debate About Science, Organics And Freedom To Choose

The headline on the Associated Press article by Jennifer Sinco Kelleher reads like a joke — Hawaii’s Genetically Modified Papayas Attacked — but it is a deadly serious matter. It touches on the rule of law, the integrity of democracy, the possible use of a veneer of public policy debate for private gain and a distortion of legitimate concerns regarding science and food safety:

Thousands of papaya trees were chopped down on 10 acres of Big Island farmland under the cover of night last month. Hawaii County police said the destruction appeared to be done with a machete, but there are no leads and few clues beyond the tree stumps and all the fruit left to rot.

“It’s hard to imagine anybody putting that much effort into doing something like that,” said Delan Perry, vice president of the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association. “It means somebody has to have passionate reason.”

A growing theory among farmers is that the attack was an act of eco-terrorism, a violent protest against the biotechnology used in growing papayas here. Police did not respond to calls seeking comment.

The majority of papayas grown on 170 farms on Oahu and the Big Island are genetically modified.

University of Hawaii scientists developed the genetically modified fruit that’s resistant to a ring spot virus that wiped out production on Oahu in the 1950s and was detected in the Puna district on the Big Island in the 1990s. Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are crops whose genetic makeup has been altered to give the plant a desirable trait. The genetically modified fruit is credited with saving Hawaii’s $11 million papaya production industry.

“We wouldn’t have a papaya industry today if it weren’t for the transgenic papaya,” said Alicia Maluafiti, executive director of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, which represents the seed industry and protects biotech crop growers. “Without a transgenic papaya restricting the expansion of the virus, that virus would be prevalent today.”…

One of the affected farmers, Erlinda Bernardo, said fellow papaya growers often worry about retaliation from those who are against GMOs. “Most of the product on the island is genetically modified,” she said. “If not, most of the farmers would suffer, there would be more unemployment.”

Bernardo, her husband and four children are preparing to plant again in another area after 3,000 trees worth $15,000 on five leased acres were destroyed. “We’re afraid to plant in that area, so we’re giving up the lease there,” she said. “When you start all over again, you have to wait a year for the papaya to bear fruit.”

We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Delan Perry
Vice President
Hawaii Papaya Industry Association
Hilo, Hawaii
Volcano Isle Fruit Company
Pahoa, Hawaii

Q: Could you provide insight into the assault on the Hawaiian papaya industry, which involved the chopping down of thousands of papaya trees, decimating some 10 acres of farmland? Since the large majority of Hawaiian-grown papayas are genetically modified, is this an act of eco-terrorism by anti-GMO activists? Is the incident isolated or has there been a history of such attacks?

A: In fact, something on a similar scale happened about a year ago, covering 13 or 14 acres, actually on the same road. Most people think the acts are related. Police have persons of interest, but are still investigating.  That’s one reason we are offering, and the industry is supporting, a $10,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of those involved. And we continue to solicit donations. The industry wants to encourage someone to step forward and put these people in jail.

Q: Was your business attacked?

A: I grow papayas in Pahoa on the eastern corner of the Big Island.  Our farms were not hit this time, but we were affected in a different incident about 10 years ago. We’re a diversified farm for over 30 years. We mostly produce for the local market with products ranging from hydroponic lettuce to orchids, citrus and avocados. Papaya is an important part of our business, but not a majority.

Q: What is the impact of these attacks on the industry?

A: For the farmers involved, it’s pretty devastating. Puna, the main growing area, is made up of a lot of fairly rural areas with thousands of acres perfectly suited to growing papayas. We have several hundred mostly small farmers. For perspective, there may be 1500 acres to 2000 acres producing at one time. The attack targeted 10 acres in the lower elevation part of the Puna district. It was a large number of trees at 800 trees per acre, which is a lot of damage.

Papayas are a relatively short term crop; they grow four years and then they get replanted. That was $55,000 to get those trees that were destroyed up to that age so that is significant to the family farms that were involved.

Q: Considering this isn’t the first attack, isn’t there a way to set up better security? How is it possible for people to cut down thousands of trees without being noticed?

A: It’s relatively easy to chop down these trees; if someone has the will, they only need a machete, not a chain saw. This is a rural area; it was done at night, a mile or so off a dirt road. There are many, many farms but no fences. There isn’t even electricity in parts. It’s usually a very mellow and friendly area but this makes people on edge and fearful. 

Unfortunately, there is a large amount of our agriculture vandalized. It is troubling, it’s expensive and it hurts mostly small farmers, crushing their economic viability. When anti-GMO activists steal or destroy property, all they are doing is depriving family farms of their livelihoods and their ability to feed people; it’s disheartening.

Our papaya industry is different from the corn and soybean industries in our reasons for introducing genetically engineered crops. We did it because we had to, not to boost product quality and yields. Papaya Ringspot Virus got into the main papaya growing region of Puna, and the technology with GMOs was there to eliminate a disease that was fatal to the industry. These papaya farmers didn’t have any option but to embrace the technology unless they wanted to grow something else or shut down.

Q: How important is the Hawaiian papaya market?

A: For the local market, papaya is the number one fruit. It’s exported to the mainland continental United States, and Canada is a very important export market. It’s very popular there, especially in western Canada. Canada went through a parallel regulatory process and approved it.

Without genetically engineered papaya, people wouldn’t have an industry. On the Big Island, it’s one of the biggest industries, important economically to everyone, approaching 1,000 farms. 

Back in the early 90s, the industry began the process of going through the USDA, FDA and EPA to get approval for commercial use, and went through a similar process in Canada in 1999 or 2000. We’ve been working on deregulation in Japan because it is an important export market to the industry.

The only variety going to Japan now is the traditional Kapoho variety, which is not disease-resistant. But if you have a farm in a very isolated area or there are no other papaya fields around you, you can produce it, but it’s much more expensive.  It’s continuing but as a much smaller market.  It used to be bigger, but became so complicated to grow. Deregulation with Japan has been a project for 10 years. We’ve had three agencies in Japan approve genetically modified papaya and now it is in the consumer protection area assessing the marketing issues for the Japanese people.

Q: Do other countries face the same virus issues with papayas and if so, what are their solutions?

A: In many countries, Papaya Ringspot Virus is a serious problem.  In Thailand it curtails the industry. Mexico is a big, big producer and the country has to deal with the virus. Brazil does as well, and they open up new virgin areas to run away from the virus. Here in Hawaii, we don’t have places to run. I know research has been done in many, many countries, but I don’t know of any other countries besides China that have commercialized genetically modified papayas.

The growing conditions in Hawaii are ideal for papayas. They can grow without irrigation. Most of the time we’re blessed with showers, and the land is rocky and well drained because it’s volcanic. We have lots of sun and adequate rainfall. Farmers are never satisfied, and like anything else, contend with insects and fungus, but overall conditions are quite perfect.

Mira contacted Dr. Richard Manshardt, a geneticist at the University of Hawaii to learn more…

From left to right are Dr. Maureen Fitch, Dr. Dennis Gonsalves, and Dr. Richard Manshardt.
Photo credit: University of Hawaii.

Dr. Richard Manshardt
Assistant Professor in Plant Breeding
University of Hawaii at Manoa
Honolulu, Hawaii

Q: In light of the recent attack against genetically modified papayas, could you shed light on the evolution of the product and your role in the process?

A: I was part of the team 20 years ago that developed the genetically engineered variety. Dr. Dennis Gonsalves, as a virologist at Cornell University, had been interested in diseases in plants, and had a hard time getting good papayas in New York because of diseases. Dr. Gonsalves is from the Big Island of Hawaii, where ultimately the Papaya Ringspot Virus (PRV) made its way into that production. The virus was long recognized as a grave limitation. People have looked at resistance materials within papaya species to try to eradicate the disease historically plaguing the industry here. If we didn’t solve these problems, there wouldn’t be an industry.

Q: Was genetic engineering the only viable solution?

A: Conventional breeding efforts weren’t practical because there was not a high enough level of resistance and they introduced traits not favorable to papaya production. Nothing very useful came out of it. Dennis Gonsalves got into this in the mid-80s, working with a grad student to produce through mutation a mild form of the virus to infect plants, producing less serious problems and protecting the plants from more virulent strains.

Inoculating young plants in this way worked to a degree in Hawaii.  The yields were somewhat lower but farmers could get a good crop. When testing the virus in Taiwan, it didn’t work well, not to the point of being economically useful. This is another attempt, cross protection, which is used in citrus and tomatoes and there is a history of applications where it’s useful.

Dr. Maureen Fitch from the Geneva Agricultural Experiment Station in New York was doing graduate doctoral work at University of Hawaii in my lab and developed an important part of the process — the ability to regenerate genetically modified tissues to plants. Dr. Gonsalves developed the gene, Dr. Fitch developed procedures for growing the gene, and I tested the material in the field.

The gene protected the papaya from the virus. Within two years of testing we knew it worked and demonstrated its usefulness in the field.

Q: How long did the government vetting process take and what was involved before it was approved for commercial use?

A: We spent seven years testing through USDA under field conditions to be sure it wouldn’t become a super weed. FDA looked for any effects on workers and toxic side effects, and EPA tested for food allergies. There was no budget for this, so we did it on the side. Dr. Gonsalves spearheaded the whole thing and was responsible for commercial employment. He wanted to make sure it got out in the field, and didn’t end its tenure as a scientific research project. Finally, in 1998, 10 years after we started, it was cleared for commercial use.

Q: There are several variety names bandied around. Could you clarify?

A: The variety actually genetically engineered was initially called Sunset. Once its virus resistance had useful characteristics, we called it Sunup. The industry is used to growing a light orange yellowish fruit and that’s what people expect, but the fruit of the Sunup was red. So to convert it, we made a conventional hybrid between Sunup resistant to virus and Kapoho Solo (the name solo came about for any small papaya in which one person could eat the whole thing and all commercially released Hawaiian varieties carry that colloquial Solo name). The hybrid created yellow flesh fruit that was resistance to the virus. Those hybrids were actually made in the early 90s.

The commercial genetically modified varieties are the Rainbow (yellow flesh) and the Sunup (red flesh), both good quality fruit.  Not to confuse you, but the original red flesh papaya was called Sunrise, which has been around 40 or 50 years. There was another closely similar red flesh line with comparable attributes and better shelf life called the Sunset variety (Brazil grows a lot of that), and the genetically engineered one is Sunup.

The theme I want to get across here is that from the 50s to the 90s, several decades of research took place from conventional breeding to cross protection approaches. I tried many of these approaches and got nice vigorous virus-resistant plants but couldn’t do anything with them because the plants became sterile or unproductive. None provided the control needed for the industry and that’s the rationale for going after genetically engineered product.

Q: Does that mean the overwhelming majority of papayas produced in Hawaii are genetically modified then?

A: In major growing areas of Hawaii, papayas have to be genetically engineered. I don’t have the latest figures, but in 2009 the National Agricultural Statistics Service has figures of around 65 percent to 85 percent of production in the major growing areas is Rainbow or genetically modified Sunup. Some non-GMO traditional Kapoho is exported to Japan. Farmers can grow it but are continually losing crops.

Dr. Gonsalves moved from Cornell around 2000 to head up the USDA Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo, Hawaii, and has taken on responsibility for the deregulation effort in Japan to export genetically modified papayas. Japan’s organizations analogous to the USDA and FDA have accepted the product, but there are still labeling issues and some environmental protection issues that are being resolved. The process has been long and very rigorous — tied to specific information results of scientific research.

Q: While violent acts of protest against genetically modified food are criminal and people committing them have been called eco-terrorists, are there valid concerns regarding genetic engineering?

A: A lot of people are not concerned about the science of GMOs, but the corporate control. Whoever did this act… we don’t know what the reason, it’s hard to say, but it’s a crime and these people should be prosecuted. There could be other reasons for doing this besides the issues of GMOs.

That said, there are legitimate concerns with GMOs. It’s a powerful technology moving genes from one species to another, but it’s not the genetic engineering that’s dangerous; it’s a matter of understanding the science and what you’re moving.

There are definitely cases where people have done things in good faith and in the testing process there were allergies to this specific protein this gene was making. There are good reasons for concern but that’s why there is a deregulation process.

In our case with the gene we used, it was a papaya gene and people have eaten papayas with this gene for years without any problems… It’s  analogous to immunization, where one viral gene reacts as a resistance gene for the real virus. The name for this is gene silencing. The gene is there but its output gets silenced.

Q: What are the most important points you want readers to take with them from our interview?

A: Three quick points I can make:

One, the GMO material is safe; nobody knows everything and I don’t pretend I know everything, but it’s been consumed for over a decade, tested ad nauseum and there has been no evidence of any health problem.

The genetic procedure is also safe but it is important the gene is well characterized and tested to be sure it’s doing what it’s supposed to do. That’s the normal deregulation procedure.

Second: It is problematic that organic growers have decided they don’t want to grow GMO products. There is no genetic restriction except for genetically engineered. Organic growers have selectively decided not to grow them. They can grow anything and call it organic; it’s a production procedure not a genetic procedure. It doesn’t restrict the kind of plant you can grow. I’m saying there is a distinction here, which is very arbitrary.

And yet, it’s easy, at least in the papaya case, to prevent any contamination from coming into non-genetically engineered papayas. We are doing research on how papaya pollen gets around, and cross contamination is not an issue. The most important thing is not to plant genetically engineered seeds.

The third point I want to make is that different approaches to agriculture are all good when they are appropriately applied. Organic makes a lot of sense from the sustainable component, which takes a long term view and tries to promote an ecosystem that is nurturing for agriculture. These are good values but they are very labor-intense and tend to be costly to affect.

If working with a tree crop with a long crop cycle, you can’t do conventional breeding with many generations, and putting gene resistance into a long perennial crop like that speeds up production dramatically. People are getting the message from both sides, and at some point it will make sense to grow organic Rainbow papayas. In an agricultural context, there isn’t a conflict. Conflict comes from emotional, religious, or ethical issues, which don’t make it wrong, just not scientifically based or agriculturally based.

It always comes down to risk/benefit; if you only look at risk you won’t do anything, and if you only look at benefit, your actions could be ill-advised.

Even with risk/benefit analysis, the risks and benefits are different for different groups of people. No one needs papaya; you can live without papaya. However, if you’re a papaya producer, it’s important, etc.

The job of federal agencies and scientists is to put the options out there in the context of the economic and health components of the American food supply and consumers make the choice. And that gets us into labeling issues, a whole other discussion. 

Our purpose at the University is to get fact-based information out and look at the issue in the most unbiased way we can present. The ideal democracy is the informed consumer.

There are a lot of myths and hearsay regarding genetically modified organisms. We look to be an anchor.

These different breeding and agricultural approaches are good when used appropriately. It wouldn’t make sense to do GMOs when you could do it easier with conventional, just as it wouldn’t be appropriate to grow 50,000 acres of animal feed organically. These are not conflicting approaches except for the emotional issues.

It goes without saying that destroying property for political reasons is an act of terrorism. If the issue here is GMOs, then opponents have the same right to petition congress as any other citizen. They also have the right to encourage consumer boycotts and refrain from purchasing products themselves. They obviously do not have the right to go destroy other people’s property just because Congress didn’t vote their way.

We are, however, somewhat skeptical that opposition to GMOs is what motivated this destruction. It is possible, but we suspect that the anti-GMO forces would have been proud of their work and claimed “credit” for it. We suspect it is either personal or financial in motivation. Maybe they hope to drive these farmers out and buy or lease the land cheap themselves?

Our question is where are the police in all this? This already happened, so one would think the police would have installed hidden cameras, offered substantial rewards for information, done aerial surveillance, etc. The fact that it can happen again and again and the police are ineffective at dealing with it is unacceptable.

One point raised in the interviews that we think is of great importance is the issue of whether or not the rules governing organic food should continue to prevent genetically modified foods from being sold as organic. This is really a triumph of marketing over good sense.

If scientists do a breeding program with different types of papaya and through conventional cross-breeding they get the gene for resistance to Ringspot virus to move from one variety of papaya into another, that is perfectly OK to market as organic. But if a geneticist uses molecular techniques to do the same thing, to end up with the exact same papaya, that is somehow beyond the pale.

It really makes no sense. Two exactly identical pieces of fruit, one is acceptable to market as organic and one is not, solely because of the way the great-great-great grandparents of the fruit were created.  It doesn’t make any sense at all.

Here is a local news report with pictures of the damage:

<a data-cke-saved-href="" href="" target="_new" title="Vandals Destroy 3 Big Island Papaya Farms">Video: Vandals Destroy 3 Big Island Papaya Farms</a>


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