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2-Plants: Plenty GE papaya problems on Hawai'i

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-------------------------------- GENET-news --------------------------------

TITLE:  Plenty Papaya Problems
SOURCE: Hawaii Island Journal, USA, by Alan D. McNarie
DATE:   Apr 1, 2003

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Plenty Papaya Problems

Scientists square off over how safe Hawaii's genetically modified papaya is for 

"Would it surprise you to know that saving a crop from a virus helped save a 
community from disaster?" began a full page ad in the National Geographic last 
year. The ad was about Hawaii‚s papaya crop, which allegedly was "saved" by a 
genetically modified papaya containing a transplanted protein from the Papaya 
Ringspot Virus.

 "This healthier plant not only kept Hawaiian farming communities in business, 
it also resulted in an increase in papaya production. And it‚s just one example 
of how crops enhanced by plant biotechnology could one day help feed an 
ever-increasing world population," claimed the ad, paid for by the Council for 
Biotechnology Information.

 Dennis Gonsalves, who headed the team that created the genetically modified 
papayas, recently received the prestigious Alexander Von Humboldt Award for 
Agriculture for his role in having "saved the $47 million Hawaiian papaya 
industry from ruin by the ringspot virus," according to a Cornell press release. 
He has been named to head the U.S. Department of Agriculture‚s new Pacific Basin 
Agricultural Research Center, whose $18 million "Phase 1" buildings are 
scheduled for groundbreaking at the UH-Hilo Research Park in December.

 But in lower Puna, the heart of the state‚s papaya industry, some farmers 
aren‚t so sure that the patient has been "saved" just yet.

 Canada recently opened its market to genetically modified papayas, but much of 
the world, including the lucrative Japan market, still remains closed to them. 
Farmers complain about depressed prices for the genetically modified fruit. Many 
have gone out of business or switched to other crops. And while the two 
commercially available genetically modified varieties, "SunUp" and "Rainbow," 
have helped control the virus, farmers have found themselves fighting a new 
plague, papaya blackspot fungus, to which the genetically altered varieties 
appear more susceptible than the most common "natural" papaya. And a new study 
has raised questions about whether the altered genes in the new papayas could be 
allergenic to humans.

 The County of Hawai'i website states that this island, which produces 96 
percent of the state's papaya, currently grows only $20 million worth of the 
fruit annually well under half of the "47 million-dollar industry" claimed in 
the Cornell press release. According to Hawai'i Papaya Industry Association 
President Delan Perry, " I think we‚re expecting a little less than 40 million 
pounds this year. The actual production peak was in the early 80s, about 70 
million. In the early 90s, prior to the virus, it was around 50 million 

 So at best, so far, Gonsalves and his team can only claim to have saved a 
fraction of the papaya industry.

 The industry also faces complaints about spray drift and unsafe practices from 
some neighbors who frankly wish that it had died. A rapidly growing 
counter-movement is advocating that the papaya industry stop acting so well, 

Miracles and Monsters

 Gene-spliced crops are such a new development that there isn‚t even a commonly 
agreed upon name for them yet. Sometimes they're called "genetically engineered 
(GE) or "genetically modified" (GM). Some agronomists who work with them prefer 
the term "transgenic." But all such crops have one thing in common: genes from 
another organism have been artificially transplanted into their DNA.

 The result is a revolution potentially as powerful as the invention of the 
printing press or of the computer network. Like those earlier revolutions, this 
one deals with accessing, handling and transmitting information. But the 
transgenic revolution handles information at perhaps its most profound level for 
life on earth: the information contained in a creature's cells, which define its 
very functioning and identity. Like any powerful tool, gene splicing has the 
potential for both enormous good and great harm. It can prevent diseases and 
birth defects, increase crop yields and generate enormous wealth. It could also 
create literal monsters, spread life-threatening allergies, and place control of 
the world‚s food supply in the hands of a few powerful corporations, through 
patent ownership of that food supply's genes.

 Last February, Kona played host to two different meetings on the topic in 
successive weeks. The first, held in Kailua-Kona on Saturday, February 8, was 
organized and sponsored by the University of Hawaii-Manoa, which has developed a 
huge stake in the future of genetic technology: not only did it help develop the 
transgenic papaya; its researchers also hold basic patents on cloning 
techniques. A week later, local activists held their own three-day workshop to 
organize opposition to the rapid spread of the technology. In the weeks that 
followed, at least two fast-growing anti-GE groups have sprung up on the island: 
the Hawaii Genetic Engineering Action Network (HI GEAN), centered in South Kona 
but with island-wide membership, and an as-yet-unnamed Puna community forum, 
which meets weekly to discuss GE and related topics at an organic farm near 

 The two sides, pro and anti, are not entirely aloof from each other. When 
Richard Manshardt, one of the developers of the transgenic papaya, came to Kona 
for the UH conference, he stayed afterward at the home of HI GEAN activist Nancy 
Redfeather. He also gave HI GEAN some samples of a new test that would allow 
farmers to check on whether their papayas contained genetically modified 
materials or not.

 In doing so, he may have unwittingly helped galvanize an anti-GE movement in 
Puna. So far, two papaya growers have discovered that plants they thought were 
organic were actually transgenic.

A Seed in the Wrong Place...

 One of those farmers was John Caverly.

 "This is what I've done all my life," said Caverly a week after the news, 
standing on his lush farm in lower Puna. "I've worked the land. I've never used 

 The farm had a very different look from the huge, regimented squares of papaya 
that appeared on most plantations. The papaya here grew in smaller patches, 
separated by groves of mangos and interspersed with patches of lettuce, 
coconuts, citrus and rolennia (a relative of custard apple and soursop), so that 
any pests or infections could not spread as easily from tree to tree as they did 
in large, single-crop fields.

 Caverly said he had brought some of his papayas to a potluck community meeting 
where HIGEAN members gave a presentation, and volunteered a fruit for the gene 
test, little suspecting the results.

 Caverly believed the genetic contamination may have come from some papayas that 
his partner had bought at a farmer's market, before the Federal Government's 
strict new rules governing organic certification had gone into effect. The trees 
grown from that seed were cut down after developing a fungal disease called 
phytophthera. But some of the pollen from those trees may have drifted to other 
trees on the farm.

 Under strict new federal regulations, transgenic crops cannot be labeled 
organic. To make sure the GM strain is eradicated, Caverly said, the farm would 
be cutting down all its producing papaya trees, destroying thousands of 
seedlings, and starting anew with non-GMO seed obtained from the University of 
Hawai'i, and planting them in a different field. "I'm not into getting into a 
confrontation with those big chemical companies..." he mused.

 Instead, he advocated a non-confrontational approach: "I think it's better to 
try to correct what we're doing, work with the community, and educate people so 
that we hopefully have some control over our environment to protect our children 
and our grandchildren."

The Fungus Among Us

 Ironically, susceptibility to phytophthera and other fungal diseases may be one 
indicator t