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2-Plants: Plenty GE papaya problems on Hawai'i (complete report)

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

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

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Plenty Papaya Problems: Scientists square off over how safe Hawai'i's
genetically modified papaya is for consumers.

"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 Hawai'i'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 Hawai'ian 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 Hawai'ian 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

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 Hawai'i-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 Hawai'i 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 Kalapana.

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 that papayas are genetically modified. UH researchers knew the
new SunUp and Rainbow strains were more susceptible to phytophthera when they
released the new seed to the public. UH Agronomist Steve Ferreira told the
Journal about that susceptibility in April of 2001.

"It's a serious problem," he admitted, then. "Before the virus broke out, it
was probably the most serious fungal disease problem for papaya....In fact,
we're working on a transgenic solution for phytophthera, but that's probably
a few years away."

Since their widespread introduction, the new varieties have been afflicted
with a new plague: blackspot fungus, forcing farmers to spray their field
frequently with expensive and hazardous fungicides. Kapoho Solo, the most common
variety of non-GM papaya, is highly vulnerable to ringspot virus, but fairly
resistant to fungal infections. 

"I know that Rainbow is probably a little more susceptible to phytophthora
than is Kapoho Solo," Richard Manshardt told the Journal. "The reason is that
Rainbow is a hybrid. One of them [the parent plants] is Kapoho, the other is
SunUp, which is genetically engineered, which is very susceptible to

Why farmers got a fungus-vulnerable hybrid instead of a GM version of Kapoho
Solo was a matter of chance.

Gene-splicing is not a matter of inserting new genes with a tiny scalpel at
a precise point on a DNA chain. The virus resistant (but fungus-vulnerable)
SunUp papaya was created with a device called a "gene gun," which propels a
metal disk toward a screen at roughly the speed of a rifle bullet. When the
screen stops the disk, the disk releases a spray of one-micron-thick tungsten
balls coated with DNA proteins. The tiny balls act like miniature shotgun
pellets, penetrating the outer membranes of target plant cells to release the
proteins, which may then attach to the DNA of the host cell.

The result is not an exact science. In any given cell, the new proteins may
or may not attach, and once attached, may or may not activate in the way the
scientists want. Scientists must rely on statistical probability that if they
shoot enough cells, eventually one will turn out right.

"In this genetic engineering process, it frequently comes back to selection
among hopefully a large number of genetically engineered individuals, some of
which act the way you hope, if you're lucky, and some of which don't,"
Manshardt told the Journal. "So you're back to screening for some that behave the
ways that you hope to have them behave."

According to Manshardt, the UH-Cornell team simply didn't get a working
anti-viral Kapoho Solo cell. But the transplant did work in a variety called
Sunset, which unfortunately was very susceptible to phytophthera. So the team
cross-bred the transgenic Sunset, which they renamed SunUp, with Kapoho Solo to
create Rainbow, which is more fungus resistant than SunUp but less resistant
then Kapoho Solo.

"There are now Kapohos that are genetically engineered to resist the virus,"
noted Manshardt, but added, "Those are not commercial yet. They're still
being tested."

Allergenic Ante

While farmers were worrying about the fungus in their fields, another worry
was cropping up over a possible health risk for papaya consumers. The
Institute for Science in Society, a London-based anti-GM organization, published a
Web article entitled "GM Papaya Scandal," by Joe Cummins, Professor Emeritus
of Genetics at the University of Western Ontario. In it, Cummins alleged that
a transplanted protein in GM papayas might provoke allergic reactions in
humans, but that the Environmental Protection Agency had allowed them to be
released without investigating that possibility. 

"...As part of the approval process, potential allergens have to be
identified before the crops are released commercially," Cummins wrote. "But the GM
papaya was approved despite a recent report showing that the papaya ringspot
virus coat protein is a potential allergen because it contained a string of
amino acids identical to a known allergen."

Cummins cited a scientific paper by two Dutch biologists, Gijs A Kleter and
Ad ACM Peijnenburg, who tested a number of proteins, including the ringspot
virus coat protein in the transgenic papaya, and found that the proteins
contained strings of up to six or seven amino acids - the chemical building blocks
of proteins and genes - which matched those found in known allergens. 

"The positive outcomes of this approach warrant further clinical testing for
potential allergenicity," concluded the two scientists. Cummins contacted
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about Kleter and Peijnenburg's

"The EPA's public information stated that coat protein of papaya ringspot
virus and the genetic material necessary for its production had been granted
"an exemption from the requirement of tolerance" in 1997, which essentially
means it is exempt from safety assessment, based on the belief that the material
was safe for consumption by humans and animals," he reported.

The "exemption" Cummins referred to was a 1997 EPA regulation that
"eliminates the need to establish a maximum permissible level for residues of Coat
Proteins of Papaya Ringspot Virus and the genetic material necessary for its

Both Manshardt and Cornell Prof. Dennis Gonsalves, who headed the team that
created transgenic papaya, told the Journal that they argued for the
exemption on the grounds that human beings were already eating ringspot virus coat
proteins-in fact, that humans were eating the whole virus.

"It's in vegetables such as squash and zucchini, and people eat those all
the time. Whether people are getting sick from that, it certainly hasn't come
to anybody's attention," said Manshardt.

"At that time we had not compared amino acids and so forth," admitted
Gonsalves. But he noted, "When Hawai'iwas in trouble in the 1990s, and all of Puna
was infected, many of the papayas were eaten."

He also noted scientific projects in Brazil and Taiwan, in which fruits were
deliberately infected with weakened viruses, much as weakened viruses are
sometimes used as human vaccines. In fact, he said, "I was involved in a
project where we deliberately infected papaya with a mild strain of the virus. This
was in the mid-1980s.... A farmer wanted to utilize the technology. So he
utilized the techniques, and then sold the fruit on the market."

But Gonsalves said no follow-up was done to see if any of the consumers who
bought had suffered any ill effects.

The EPA accepted the argument that consumers were already eating plant
viruses. But Japan hasn't been as easy a sell. Gonsalves and others have been
continuing research on the allergen question in order to meet Japan's more
exacting requirements. 

"We followed the standard criteria that people use in checking for the
possibility of allergens," Gonsalves told the Journal. That criteria, he
maintained, was to look for proteins with 35 percent of their amino acids in common
with a known allergen, then to look for strings of eight or more amino acids
that matched strings in the known allergen. 

Manshardt believes the Dutch study is "pretty nebulous and not important. It
should be checked out but it's not a waving red flag. It's not a sure sign
of any allergenicity."

Former Indiana University GE researcher Marti Crouch, disagrees. "In fact,
very small changes in a protein can increase the allergenicity dramatically,"
she wrote in an e-mail to the Journal "Some of the drugs made by genetic
engineering, such as human insulin, are many times more likely to cause
allergies, and it is thought that subtle differences in the sugars attached to them,
or a single amino acid difference, may be responsible for the increase in
allergies," she said. 

Who Owns the Food?

One factor motivating many anti-GMO activists is not safety, but a broader
issue: who controls the world food supply?

"Genetically modified seed - you can't save it. It's against the law," notes
Redfeather. "Farmers or gardeners who use it would have to sign a technology
agreement to lease this seed for the year."

GM seed is patented. GM seed patent holders have sued a number of farmers in
the U.S. and Canada - including one papaya farmer in Hawai'i- when GM genes
were discovered in their fields. Some of the sued farmers have claimed that
drifting pollen from nearby GM fields contaminated their plants. Redfeather
points out that for thousands of years, farmers improved their crops, adapting
them to local climates, soil conditions and pests, by saving seed from the
best plants in each field and using that seed for the next year's crop. The
introduction of commercial hybrids has limited that practice, leading to the
extinction of thousands of local crop varieties. Widespread GM crops, pollen
drift and the threat of being sued over unlicensed genes could threaten
traditional seed-saving even further.

The problem of pollen drift has organic farmers especially worried. Under
the strict new U.S. law on the labeling of "organic" foods, no GM plant
qualifies as organic. But GM plants and food products are not required to be
labeled, and farmers have no way of knowing if the field next to them is growing GM

Manshardt argues that there's no pressing need to label GM crops just
because they're GM. 

"...If the thing you put in there changes the character of the product - if
it expresses something that was never in the product before, you have to
label it," he argues. "If there were, for instance, a 60 percent drop in Vitamin
A or a 40 percent increase in Vitamin C, you would have to label that, if it
were a significant deviation from papayas in general. So I think that the
public's being protected from things like that...[but] if it doesn't deviate
significantly from the unmodified papaya, then what are you telling people?

Manshardt says that the Cornell-UH team did conduct a preliminary test on
pollen drift, in which fruit from non-GM fields adjacent to and 1/4 mile
downwind from a 1-acre GM tract were examined for cross-pollination. 1000 seeds
from 85 fruit were examined. No cross-pollination was found. 

"That's not definitive by any means, but it does give some indication that
under commercial conditions, there isn't going to be significant gene flow
from transgenics to non-transgenics."

But critics argue that the sample in Manshardt's test was too minuscule to
be significant. An acre of papaya can contain thousands of fruits, and each
fruit can contain around 500 seeds. And a relatively small organic farm
surrounded by GM papaya fields could face considerably more chance of contamination
than the fields tested for drift from a one-acre test plot.

The tests conducted by HI GEAN have already yielded two positives for GM
contamination of what were thought to be natural papayas: one in Puna and one in

Manshardt also argues that if an occasional case of pollen drift occurs, the
fruit can still be sold as organic if the contamination was accidental. He
cites a clause in the Preamble to the "Applicability" section USDA National
Organic Program. 

"As long as an organic operation has not used excluded methods and takes
reasonable steps to avoid contact with the products of excluded methods as
detailed in their approved organic system plan, the unintentional presence of
products of excluded methods should not affect the status of an organic product
or operation," the Preamble states.

Eileen O'Hora-Weir of the Hawai'i Organic Farmer's Association (HOFA)

"The Preamble is not the law. It's the explanation of the law," she

The actual regulations of the National Organic Program require that the
organic farm protect and document its seed source, according to an "organic
system plan" spelled out by an organic accrediting agency such as HOFA. 

"Given the fact that we have genetic contamination of the papaya crop in
Hawai'i, we require that the farmers document their seed source," noted
O'Hora-Weir. "If the papaya tested positive for GM genes, "the certifying agency
would then conduct an investigation to determine the source of the contamination.
If the source of contamination was not a result of actions taken by the
producer, the producer would not lose his certification."

But whether or not the farm would be allowed to sell the fruit," she said,
would be "a case by case call."

Education and Counter-Education

On a Wednesday evening in early March, some 70 community activists met for
their weekly forum at La'akea, a "permaculture education facility" in lower
Puna. The crowd ranged from Hawai'ian sovereignty movement elders to
anti-vaccination crusader/conspiracy theorist Len Horowitz. The catalyst that had
brought this grassroots movement together was transgenic papaya. But papaya was
only the tip of a much larger iceberg. Most of those present believed in
small-scale, sustainable agriculture. They saw GM products as only the latest
threat from a corporate-controlled, industrialized agribusiness system that was
strangling the way of life they loved. 

"This is a direct threat to our freedom," said co-facilitator Sarah
Sullivan. "That's the common thread that's binding us together. We want to be
self-reliant. We want to be sovereign. We want to be free."

"That's really scary to me to think that we can't even grow our own
vegetables because somebody might come in and take it from us, or make us pay them
for it," one participant commented.

"What Monsanto was telling the people is with so much poverty and famine, we
cannot afford to not to have genetically modified foods," remarked veteran
author-activist Alicia Bay Laurel. "But if you have only a little of this
[crop] and a little of that, you don't have to have all the spraying and you
don't have to have genetically modified crops.... The industrialization of
farming is what's causing the worldwide famine."

Another noted that for most of the history of the world, every farm had been
organic. "The word 'organic' associated with a farm is a symptom of a
corporate world," that speaker maintained.

Hawai'ian kupuna Sam Kalalaleiki agreed. "This is the way we did it until
America came and broke up the units," he said. "I think all of us - we're on
the right path."

Former Na'alehu School librarian Eden Peart told of attending a conference
where a corporate-sponsored school curriculum unit on genetic engineering was
discussed for Hawai'i schools. One proposed question dealt with the
extinction of native birds because their red feathers were prized for ornamentation,
and asked students how genetic engineering could help solve the problem.

"The 'right' answer was, 'Genetically engineer the bird so it has a
different color of feathers,'" she recalled.

The group is working on its own strategy of counter-education. On April 11
and 12 at La`akea, they plan a two-day event. HI GEAN will supply a limited
number of the new GM tests, so farmers can find out if their papayas have been
contaminated with the artificial genes. Participants will tour each other's
farms and do a "work trade to see each others' strengths."

But while some saw GM plants, industrialized agriculture, and even
vaccinations as a global corporate conspiracy, others cautioned against villainizing
the other side. 

One activist recalled an encounter with GM researchers: "These people said,
'Well, there's starvation all over the world, and I just want to do what I
can. And there was this light of love in their eyes...."

"It's so important that we look at everyone as a potential ally, instead of
making everyone out to be an enemy," Sullivan told the Journal later. "I
think building community with everyone involved in this issue is most important
to me. All of our problems are only a symptom of a lack of information." 


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