Genetically modified papaya will soon be on the supermarket shelves in Japan just like it now is in the U.S.
This first-ever fresh market GMO food product is not from an American corporate giant. It is the result of tenacious research from a host of scientists and the cooperation of Hawaiian farmers. This rare feat in today’s contentious debate over GMO crops was not accomplished to make a statement. It was to save an important crop for farmers in the impoverished state of Hawaii.
Dennis Gonsalves, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo, Hawaii, and professor emeritus of plant pathology at Cornell, detailed to the 63rd annual meeting of the Western Society of Weed Science in Hawaii how Hawaiian agriculture has done what no other ag sector has; win approval to market a genetically modified food crop in the U.S. and Japan.
Gonsalves was the project leader on the successful effort to save Hawaii’s $47 million papaya industry. He is a native Hawaiian raised on a sugar plantation on Hawaii’s Big Island. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Hawaii and a doctorate at the University of California at Davis. He went to Cornell University as an associate professor in 1977. He spent 25 years at Cornell, yet his biggest professional achievement there saved an industry 4,700 miles away in his native island homeland.
Gonsalves left Cornell eight years ago to become director of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo, Hawaii.
Papaya is the second largest fruit crop in Hawaii. It is grown commercially for export to the U.S. mainland and Japan. Hawaii exports 25 percent to 30 percent of its papaya to Japan.
Papaya trees can be severely damaged by the papaya ringspot virus (PRSV), which is rapidly transmitted by aphids. In fact, PRSV is the most serious virus disease of papaya worldwide.
PRSV was discovered in Hawaii in the 1940s. It virtually eliminated large papaya production on Oahu in the 1950s, causing the papaya industry to relocate to the Puna district on the Big Island near Hilo in the early 1960s. Even though PRSV was only 19 miles away from Puna, geographic isolation and diligent surveillance and rouging efforts kept the virus from Puna for years. Puna farmers produce 95 percent of Hawaii’s papaya.
However, most producers and scientists understood PRSV would eventually reach Puna and a research project was started in the late 1980s to develop transgenic papaya to stave off PRSV by using a concept called “pathogen-derived resistance.”
Gonsalves told WSWS members that a gene from the pathogen is used to fight against the pathogen itself. This was done using a “gene gun,” that can literally “shoot” genetic information obtained from one kind of organism into cells of another. The first promising transgenic papaya line was identified in 1991. A small scale field trial was initiated on Oahu the next year, the same year PRSV was first found in Puna.
The Oahu trial proved successful in identifying papaya highly resistant to PRSV. Timing could not be better since by late 1994, nearly half of Puna’s papaya acreage was infected and a number of farmers were going out of business.
Rapidly evolving research produced commercial, transgenic papaya varieties SunUp and Rainbow.
With the Hawaii papaya industry facing imminent demise, the industry went to APHIS, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and by September 1997 won approval to commercialize transgenic papaya. A year later transgenic seed was made available to growers.
The papaya growers turned their attention to winning Japanese approval to market the transgenic papaya there, since Japan was a key market for Hawaiian papaya. However, Japan has not been inclined to accept transgenic agricultural products.
Gonsalves admitted at the WSWS conference that Japan’s regulatory approval process is “tough,” but it is not “political.” Hawaiian papaya growers won Japan’s approval to export papaya there. Japan will begin accepting transgenic papaya this year, Gonsalves said, because the Hawaiians provided all the information and scientific data Japan required.
Europe is another major market for papaya. However, Gonsalves said transgenic papaya will never win approval there, regardless of how much information is provided because the process is political in Europe.
Papaya is a staple in many Pacific Rim and Third World countries. PRSV is widespread, as well.
Papaya is highly nutritious and full of Vitamin A and Vitamin C.
Gonsalves turned his attention to Thailand, where like Hawaii, papaya is a major crop. Thai scientists picked up on the Hawaiian work and planted field trials there from 1999 to 2004. Unfortunately, Greenpeace, the radical environmental group, raided a research trial where the transgenic papaya were growing and destroyed the plant material.
Continued Greenpeace protests intimidated the Thai government and misinformation in remote villages has stalled the introduction of GE papaya in Thailand.
Gonsalves is not optimistic about the future of transgenic papaya in Thailand, despite the fact that the papaya developed in Hawaii could have a major economic impact on the industry there without any environmental impact.
However, scientists and growers from Bangladesh, Africa, Jamaica, Venezuela, and Brazil have been working with Gonsalves to develop disease-resistance varieties for their countries.