Genetically modified papaya problematic
By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer
Exports of Hawai'i-grown papaya hit at least a 13-year low last year as local growers continued their wait for permission to send genetically modified fruit to Japan.
Papaya exports fell to $5.8 million last year, an 18 percent decline from 2008, according to data from Foreign Trade Zone No. 9, which is the hub for Hawai'i's international trade.
Sales to Japan, once Hawai'i's largest export market, fell 43 percent to $1.2 million last year from $2.1 million the year before. That's down from $15.1 million in papaya exports to Japan in 1996, which was two years before genetically modified Rainbow papaya was introduced.
Developed in part by the University of Hawai'i, genetically modified papaya was designed to be resistant to ring spot virus. Left unchecked, the virus can cut papaya yield and harm the quality of the fruit. Rainbow papaya is credited by many for saving the state's papaya industry. But critics contend the papaya is a failure because it has yet to generate the market acceptance and higher sales prices that nongenetically modified papayas command.
One barometer for gauging the commercial viability of genetically modified papaya is Japan. Local officials have spent nearly a decade trying to persuade officials there to allow the importation and sale of the modified papaya. That hasn't occurred yet, though local papaya growers maintain that Japan's acceptance is coming.
"I don't think it's if, I just think it's when" that approval will come, said Rod Yonemura, a Hilo consultant working for the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association. "This year I doubt it, but who knows?"
Japan remains a critical potential market for Hawai'i because of the high prices papayas fetch there. In Japan a single papaya can sell for as much as $10. In contrast, farm level papaya prices in Hilo typically are less than $1 per papaya.
"It's a great market for us because it's a high-yielding market," said Matthew Loke, administrator for the Agricultural Development Division of the state Agriculture Department. "They eat papaya like we eat high-end candies. For them it's a treat, so they're willing to pay a lot for a good-looking, good-tasting papaya."
Hawai'i-grown, nongenetically modified papayas continue to sell in Japan. However, 75 percent of papayas grown in Hawai'i are the modified Rainbow variety, which is exported to Canada and to a lesser extent Mainland China and Hong Kong.
Few local nongenetically modified papayas reach maturity without developing the ring spot virus, said O'ahu papaya farmer Ken Kamiya. Even fewer non-genetically modified organism, or GMO, papayas meet strict export-quality standards.
"Right now the growers want to grow for Japan, but the problem is you're taking the risk of the virus, so the growers have been reluctant to plant a non-GMO," said Kamiya, who grows the modified papaya. "You think you can be isolated so you think you can be safe, but boy that virus travels. The virus pressure is very severe.
"If the Japanese get ahold of this Rainbow and it gets accepted, that will become a big boost," Kamiya said.
Even if Japan allows Hawai'i's GMO papaya to be imported, the fruit faces another big barrier: consumer acceptance. The GMO Rainbow papaya is sold locally without any label identifying the fruit as a genetically modified product.
In contrast, Japan will require the papayas to be labelled as a genetically modified food. Developing that label as well as procedures for handling the fruit are the main remaining export hurdles, Yonemura said.
Local officials hope the labels won't deter consumer acceptance.
"It may, but there's no precedence," Yonemura said. "We've done some surveys here with tourists and it's mixed feelings.
"I think the education campaign later on is going to be, 'Hey, why hide it. Rainbow is the perfect fruit through tradition and science. Rainbow is the premier papaya and look for this label.' "
The ring spot virus was first detected in 1992 on the Big Island, where the bulk of papayas are grown. Papaya production picked up for about three years after the genetically modified papaya was introduced in 1998. Then sales started a gradual decline.
Through August of last year papaya production was down 3 percent from the prior-year period to 19.8 million pounds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Critics of the modified papaya contend that too much effort is focused on genetically modified produce and that the state would be better off supporting alternative pest management practices and the development of high-value niche products similar to the popular Kona coffee and Maui onion products.
"To me it seems like the U.S. has been kind of twisting the arm of the Japanese personnel to try to get the papaya approved," said Hector Valenzuela, a University of Hawai'i vegetable extension specialist. "Even if we get to export it, Hawai'i would be selling itself short. The GMO products right now are not considered in the marketplace to be a high-value item."
Kamiya and others hope that exports of GMO papayas to Japan and possible European markets could help change that. Concerns about the fruit appear to stem from its genetically modified nature.
Genetic crop research has gone on for decades. It involves combining genetic material from different organisms in hopes of creating higher-yielding, better-tasting crops or hardier crop. Such work also has spurred concerns about potential risks to the environment, people and food supply.
Hawai'i's GMO papaya passed a key safety hurdle last year when studies and public hearings in Japan were successfully concluded, Kamiya said.
He likened concerns about the papaya to worries about other technical advances such as cell phones and microwave ovens.
"There's resistance there, but with more knowledge and education it will be accepted. We've been selling it since 1998, probably 200 million pounds from Honolulu, and not a single bad case of anything going wrong. It's perfectly safe," Kamiya said.