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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 26, 2006

Genetically engineered papaya trees cleared

Associated Press

KAPOHO, Hawai'i Ten volunteers donned protective suits yesterday to clear genetically engineered papaya trees found growing on an organic farm on the Big Island.

The "decontamination" project involved farmers and members of the environmental group Greenpeace.

"This is sort of the heartland for GE papaya. This is ground zero," said Michelle Sheather, coordinator of Greenpeace's GE Campaign.

The hazmat suits were worn to prevent workers from unintentionally spreading the seeds of genetically altered plants, she said.

Greenpeace's help was sought after farming groups were contacted by Terri Mulroy, who discovered suspected altered papaya growing about a week ago on the 9.1-acre organic farm she bought 18 months ago.

"I was dismayed to learn that I had GMO (genetically modified organism) papaya," she said.

Mulroy suggested birds or the wind could have spread seeds from nearby farms where SunUp papayas are grown.

Genetically engineered papayas are grown commercially only in Hawai'i, Sheather said.

SunUp and Rainbow varieties were created by the University of Hawai'i and Cornell University researchers to counter the ringspot virus that reduced Big Island papaya harvests by more than 50 percent following its discovery in 1992.

The patented seeds were distributed in 1998 and soon started producing the first genetically modified tree fruit to be sold commercially in the U.S.

The disease-resistant varieties are banned in Japan, which buys 40 percent of Hawai'i's annual $16 million papaya crop.

Organic farmers could lose their certification and their premium-priced crops could be devalued if genetically modified plants take root on their property, said Melanie Bondera, a Honaunau organic farmer, who also has found altered papaya on her farm.