HILO, Hawaii, 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 papaya.
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 of collapsing.
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 virus.
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 invasion.
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 crops.
"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
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
"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 Action Network.
"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
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 for free.
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
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 information."
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 be recalled."
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All Rights Reserved.