September 10, 2004 (ENS): Engineered papaya
genes are showing up in fruits and seeds that were thought
to be traditional, prompting a coalition of outraged
farmers, consumers and backyard growers Thursday to
bring their contaminated papayas back to the University
of Hawaii, which created and released the engineered
Independent laboratory testing results issued this week
found the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in fruit
from organic farms. Contamination was also found in the
stock of non-genetically engineered seeds being sold commercially
by the University of Hawaii.
Genetic engineering of papayas helped growers overcome
the ringspot virus, which by 1997 had decimated Hawaii’s
fifth largest crop. Production had fallen by nearly
40 percent, farmers were going out of business, and
Hawaii’s $35 million papaya industry was in danger
Researchers identified and cloned the gene that produces
the coat protein in the virus, then inserted the gene
into the papaya, making the plant resistant to the ringspot
Within four years of the introduction of the genetically
engineered fruit, papaya production had rebounded to
levels near where they were before the ringspot virus
But growers of organic and traditional papayas say the
spreading of genetically modified fruits and seeds put
their operations at risk. They are demanding that the
University of Hawaii (UH) provide a plan for "cleaning
up papaya contamination." The coalition also called
for liability protection for local growers and the prevention
of genetic contamination of other Hawaiian commodity
"It is an outrage that UH is selling contaminated
papaya seeds to our local farmers and growers,"
said Toi Lahti, an organic farmer and papaya grower
from the Big Island.
"Not only could organic farmers lose their certification
by growing genetically engineered papayas, GMO papaya
seeds are also patented by Monsanto among others,"
Lahti said. "This opens farmers to oppressive lawsuits
based on claims of patent infringement, where corporations
such as Monsanto have not hesitated to sue even those
who unknowingly planted such seeds."
Lahti was referring to Canadian canola grower Percy
Schmeiser who this May lost a case brought by Monsanto,
which sued Schmeiser because their patented Round-Up
Ready Canola was in his fields. Monsanto took the position
that even though Schmeiser had not planted the patented
canola and did not know it was on his property, he must
pay their technology fee.
Similar unintentional contamination of Hawaiian papayas
was evident from lab test results. All samples were
tested by Genetic ID, one of the world's leading scientific
laboratories for genetic testing. Composite samples
from the Big Island and Oahu both revealed GMO contamination.
Nearly 20,000 papaya seeds from across the Big Island,
80 percent of which came from organic farms and the
rest from backyard gardens or wild trees, showed a contamination
level of 50 percent.
Papaya farmers raised concerns about the impact the
"contamination crisis" could have on export
markets, particularly to countries like Japan that have
stringent regulations about importing genetically engineered
"These tests indicate that UH's non-GMO seed stock
is contaminated, and so there can be no doubt that the
university must take immediate action to protect farmers,
consumers and the environment," said Mark Query
of GMO-Free Hawaii. "Papaya contamination is a
case study in the threat that GMO contamination presents
to local agriculture. It is now clear that coexistence
of traditional and GMO crops is impossible."
"The Big Island is home to most of the commercial
GMO papaya fields in the state," said Melanie Bondera,
a farmer from Kona and member of the Hawaii Genetic Engineering
||"Despite the problems local
growers have had with the GMO papaya, the [University
of Hawaii] is now genetically engineering taro,
pineapple, banana, sugarcane, and other commodity
"Despite the problems local
growers have had with the GMO papaya," said Bondera,
"the university is now genetically engineering taro,
pineapple, banana, sugarcane, and other commodity crops."
"We do not support the further release of other
genetically engineered commodity crops," she said.
The coalition is seeking a commitment from the university
to fund research into local, sustainable agriculture.
The Cornell Research Foundation and the Papaya Administrative
Committee, whose grower members helped finance the research,
have the license to the genetically improved papaya
seeds. They have allowed Hawaii farmers to use the seeds
The Volcano Isle Fruit Company, a member of the Hawaii
Papaya Industry Association, is delighted with the results
of genetically engineered papayas. The company says
the two genetically engineered varieties, Rainbow and
Sunup, are a success.
The company said researchers produced a "papaya
that looks and tastes good, preserves the high nutrition,
and flavors of the Hawaiian varieties."
The research team includes Dennis Gonsalves, UH graduate
and center director of the USDA Pacific Basin Agricultural
Research Center in Hilo; Richard Manshardt, horticulturist
in UH’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human
Resources; UH graduate Maureen Masuda Fitch of the U.S.
Department of Agriculture, and Jerry Slightom of Pharmacia-Upjohn
Co. The team was awarded the prestigious 2002 Alexander
von Humboldt Foundation Award for Agriculture.
But the Hawaiian Genetic Engineering Action Network
says all genetically modified crops, including papayas,
are disastrous for Hawaii.
The organization points to a 2002 study that suggests
that the papaya ringspot virus coat protein is a potential
allergen because it contained a string of amino acids
identical to a known allergen. The study by G. Kleter
and A. Peijnenburg, "Screening of transgenic proteins
expressed in transgenic food crops for the presence
of short amino acid sequences identical to potential,
IgE-binding linear epitopes of allergens," is published
in BioMed Central Structural Biology 2002, 2, 8-19.
Hawaii has more test sites for genetically engineered
plants per acre than any other state in the nation.
As of November 2002, there were 166 field test being
conducted on over 8,000 acres of land. Genetic engineering
companies will not disclose to the public what genetic
tests are being done or where they are being conducted
citing the locations as "confidential business
Birds, bees, and wind can carry genetically engineered
pollen great distances where it can contaminate other
plants. "Genetically engineered organisms are alive,"
the organization says. "Once they escape into the
environment, they reproduce and mutate. They can never
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All