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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, September 10, 2004

Genetically modified papaya protested

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Staff Writer

A group of Big Island farmers opposed to genetically engineered plants dumped more than 20 papaya fruit into a trash bin on the University of Hawai'i-Hilo campus yesterday in a symbolic protest of what they say is "contamination" of their trees by plants created by UH scientists.

The group, which leaders say includes as many as 100 small farmers, including conventional, backyard and organic farmers on three islands, is calling on UH to create a plan to prevent cross-pollination of their papaya trees as well as offering liability protection for growers if their markets are lost.

The farmers say a new study they financed shows major contamination of their trees by genetically engineered plants that could potentially affect their ability to market papaya to Japan, deeply cutting into Hawai'i's export market of non-engineered papaya. The papaya industry is worth about $12 million annually.

"They're bringing out technologies that are not functional for all farmers," said Melanie Bondera, who heads Hawai'i Genetic Engineering Action Network and has a small organic farm on the Big Island. "For farmers there's a loss-of-market issue. For papaya, our market is primarily Japan and Europe, and they won't accept any genetically modified organism."

A top UH agriculture dean questioned the methodology of the group's research, but said the university would be happy to assess any scientific data they present regarding cross-pollination.

"If they're willing to explain their methodologies then we could have a conversation about the validity of the information about contamination and how it got there," said Andrew Hashimoto, dean of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

"Since 1998 there's been 100 million pounds of transgenetic papaya in the state — the Rainbow and Sunup papaya — marketed ... so a lot of people in Hawai'i and on the Mainland have been eating this product with no documented health consequences."

The issue is one being felt worldwide as organic farmers and citizens concerned about the effects of genetically engineered or altered food worry about long-term health effects. Japan does not allow Hawai'i's genetically engineered papaya to be imported. Neither does the European Union, which has banned all modified products.

Meanwhile, the American Medical Association has reported that the action of genetically modifying plants does not adversely affect health any more than natural breeding methods do.

Dianne Ley, deputy director of the state Department of Agriculture, said the genetically modified papaya have been certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well as the federal Food and Drug Administration.

"The issues of coexistence (of different types of farming) are really challenging, particularly with an issue as complex as genetically modified organisms," said Ley.

Hashimoto said there would be no papaya industry in Hawai'i without research that created genetic modifications in 1996 to create a plant resistant to the ringspot virus that was decimating Hawai'i's papaya crops.

"Our papaya industry would not be here if not for transgenic papaya. Without that the papaya industry would be totally defunct."

Pieces of the virus were added to the DNA structure of the plant in order to protect it against the virus in the wild.

Kenneth Kamiya, an O'ahu papaya farmer, said he would be out of business without genetic modification. "We don't have any other choice because of the virus pressure," said Kamiya.

"In the future, when the virus subsides, maybe we can go back. But without the genetically modified plant we won't stay in business."

But organic farmer Toivo Lahti on the Big Island said he recently had to destroy his 170 papaya trees because they had been cross-pollinated with the genetically modified strain, and he can't sell his fruit as organic.

"They were contaminated, we found out," said Lahti. "I had to cut them all.

"The problem is if you sell that papaya and they take the seed and plant it, then you're spreading the genetically modified seed. You don't have any idea which seeds are contaminated or not."

In doing their cross-pollination study the groups solicited papaya from all geographic areas of the Big Island, said Bondera, taking 300 seeds from each of 60 papaya. The seeds were lumped together in one composite pile and tested for cross-pollination by genetically engineered fruit. She said there was 50 percent contamination.

In Puna the genetically modified papaya fruit are being used as a buffer around nonengineered trees, said state officials, and so far that has been working well to prevent the ringspot virus from attacking the nonengineered trees.

But even so, opponents to the genetic engineering say unless something is done, cross-pollination will continue to occur due to everything from bees and birds to wind and farm workers.

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8013.