Market loss and contamination: GM papaya in Hawaii (28/4/2006)

GM papaya has been hyped as a huge success story - nothing could be further from the truth.

Hawaiian papaya: market loss and contamination
By MELANIE BONDERA Bangkok Post, 27 April 2006

Why do creators of the genetically-engineered (GE) papaya fruit have to push so hard to introduce it? If the GE papaya is really a simple solution to a major agricultural disease that farmers want, it would be readily adopted by governments, farmers and markets. However, it is not. The concern over this genetically modified orgnanism (GMO) food is so great, that it creates resistance, loss of markets, contamination and more loss of markets. In Thailand, the government has a ban on field trials and hasn't commercially released the papaya after almost a decade of testing. Farmers have shown resistance and expressed concern that the European Union and Japan don't want to import the GM papaya.

In Jamaica, the GM papaya was never commercially released after many years of field trials as the primary export market is the EU, which does not tolerate GM papaya. In Venezuela, field trials were cancelled after a medical doctor advised the public against eating GM papaya. Attempts to release the GM papaya in such diverse places as Mexico, Australia, Taiwan and Brazil have all been thwarted by governments and farmers who fear market loss and contamination.

In Hawaii, despite a major epidemic of ring spot virus, it took heavy pressure and combating farmer resistance to introduce the GM papaya. The University of Hawaii and the US Department of Agriculture could have aggressively educated or required the farmers in the Puna growing area on the island of Hawaii to chop down and burn all virus-infected trees. The reduction of the virus would have kept the disease at its usual endemic levels and not allowed it to reach the epidemic. Farmers could also have been advised not to grow in huge plantations, to intercrop, to use soil amendments to grow healthier trees, plant trap-crops for the aphid vector, and spray or spread silicates to block aphid penetration of leaves. The amount of time and money to do this would have been far less than the efforts to force the introduction of the GM papaya.

In order to get the GM papaya introduced, the big papaya packing companies who ship to Japan, Hawaii's most lucrative papaya market, had asked the legislature to require the University of Hawaii to aggressively educate the little papaya farmers who ring the big farms (who sell non-GM fruit to Japan) to chop down their trees and plant GM trees. These large, powerful growers didn't want to grow GM papaya. They wanted the little farmers to be the buffer zone to protect them from the virus. This caused the little farmers to form a group called the Papaya Freedom Fighters to fight this forced introduction of GM papaya. There were close to 200 papaya farmers in the main growing area at the time of introduction and 150 members of the Papaya Freedom Fighters at their peak. This group experienced various kinds of threats from the forces introducing the GM papaya.

From 1998, the commercial release of the GM papaya in Hawaii until now, we've lost half of our papaya farmers. The primary reason is the GM papaya has never been worth as much as the non-GM fruit. Our biggest loss is much of the Japanese market. They were 60% of Hawaii's market at the time of the introduction of the GM papaya and they slammed the door shut on GMOs. Despite government assurances, they have never reopened that in seven years. Even if they did, consumer rejection in food contamination-sensitive Japan is almost assured.

Canada shut down their market. They reopened it five years later to GM papaya, but it remains a small sliver of our market. Some GM papayas go to the US mainland, but that market is primarily held by Mexico and Brazil. Most GM papayas are dumped on the local market here in Hawaii, unlabelled.

Marketing GM papayas in Hawaii unlabelled, has been the biggest source of contamination. The proponents of the GM papaya like to focus the discussion of contamination issues around pollen. This is a diversionary tactic. Each genetically modified papaya, purchased and eaten, leaves 100-500 GM seeds to be thrown out into our environmentally-planted areas. To legally farm GM papaya, you have to buy the seed from the university, sign a contract and watch a video on buffer zones to prevent pollen escape. Most consumers have accidentally planted many more, just by eating papaya for breakfast regularly.

GMO Free Hawaii began testing papayas in 2003 for farmers and gardeners who didn't want GM papayas and consistently found 30-50% GM contaminated papayas in places they shouldn't be. In 2004, GMO Free Hawaii did a pilot Contamination Study to bring to light this contamination and call for further in-depth studies. With independent PCR testing, we found 50% contamination on the island within the major growing area, 5% contamination on Oahu and the University of Hawaii's seed supply contaminated at 1%.

Organic farmers started testing and were shocked to find contamination on their farms. This led to market loss and often the chopping down of trees in efforts to decontaminate. Toi Lahti lost three separate markets and his seed line, which he'd been developing for 17 years. GMO are not allowed in organic production in the US. Many organic farmers are choosing to grow other crops as it is no longer possible to grow organic papaya in Hawaii.

The farmers and big papaya packers who still sell non-GM papaya to Japan, have to spend a lot of time and labour testing papayas to prove they are not contaminated. Each tree and each shipment need testing and the Department of Agriculture verifies by testing 1% of each of those. This is a fragile system which still allows for some GM-contaminated fruits and many GM-contaminated seeds to get through.

Japan may at any point lose patience with this contamination and look for papayas from another country which has protected its growing areas from the rampant GM contamination of papaya that we have here in Hawaii.

Melanie Bondera is a farmer on Kanalani Ohana Farm, on the Big Island of Hawaii. She works with GMO Free Hawaii on the problems of GM papaya in Hawaii.

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