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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Group: UH seeds still GMO tainted

By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

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To read the report, see www.gmofreemaui.com/news.php.

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A statewide group of farmers and community members who oppose genetically engineered plants said yesterday that some engineered papaya seeds are still mixed in with packets of papaya seeds being sold by the University of Hawai'i.

The group is concerned that the seed supply is still contaminated after the problem was flagged two years ago, and that this could create major problems for organic farmers.

A report titled "Hawaiian Papaya: GMO (genetically modified organisms) Contaminated," written by Melanie Bondera and Mark Query, said that the group bought three samples of 10,000 seeds of Solo Waimanalo, Solo Sunset and Solo Sunrise papayas and sent them to the Genetic ID laboratory.

Bondera said there were between one and 10 GMO seeds in the Solo Waimanalo sample and none in the other two. Although that number seems very small, she said, it has the potential to expand exponentially if each of those became a tree that put out one to two fruits a week, and each fruit averages at least 100 seeds that could grow into other trees.

Professor Richard Manshardt, of the University of Hawai'i's Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences, is one of those credited with genetically engineering papaya to be resistant to the papaya ringspot virus, which cannot be treated with chemicals.

Manshardt said he understands the concerns that such seed could be sent overseas where such papayas are illegal. And organic farmers want to be able to assure consumers that no genetically modified plants have mixed with their crops.

He said UH does work to avoid contamination by growing papaya in different areas of the farm "so that we don't get direct contact between different varieties."

He said the Hawai'i Seed study may be examining seeds from the same batch as an earlier study that pointed to wider contamination. "It's quite likely that it's the same seed batch that was tested in 2004."

Stephanie Whalen, of the Hawai'i Agricultural Research Center, said the industry-accepted seed standards do not guarantee 100 percent purity.

But Whalen said organic farmers can follow other safeguards spelled out by UH to avoid genetically engineered seed.

"The organic growers here have been told how to produce their own seed," Whalen said. "Each farmer could take very simple measures to produce his/her own seed."

And Whalen said since the amount of acreage now in organic farming is fairly small, "only a few flowers would need to be bagged and protected for seed. This is a very inexpensive and reliable method for the farmer."

Whalen said the ideal study would be for a third-party lab to do the testing.

Bondera runs a small organic farm on the Big Island and serves as a spokesperson of Hawai'i Seed, formerly GMO Free Hawaii.

"We're concerned that they are hurting farmers instead of helping them," she said.

Reach Robbie Dingeman at rdingeman@honoluluadvertiser.com.