Hawaii GMO papaya industry at center of global debate

Published On: May 24 2012 06:25:43 AM HST   Updated On: May 24 2012 08:51:42 AM HST

It is one of Hawaii's most valuable fruits, but the papaya industry has been on a rollercoaster ride for decades with twists and turns that just keep on coming.

It might surprise you, but genetically modified papayas have been in the consumer market for 14 years.

Whether it's helped or hurt a precious island commodity depends on who you talk to, but one thing is for sure, no one wants this multi-million dollar industry to die.

"When I just arrived here, didn't have any options for jobs," said Alberto Belmes, who is a papaya farmer to the core.

"This is like my family!" he laughed, holding on to a papaya tree.

He said he remembers well, when the ring spot virus nearly ended his career.

"It was really devastating. I mean ho boy!" he sighed.

"We came real close," said Farmer Rusty Perry, who suffered the same fate.

In 1992, Hawaii's papaya production was at its peak with seven packing houses boxing 65 million pounds for the U.S. alone.

By 2002, with the ring spot sweeping the Big Island, production tanked to a third of that.

"When the virus hit, what did your crops look like?" KITV Reporter Lara Yamada asked Belmes.

"It was all chopped down. All the trees were cut," said Belmes.

"We went from 17 employees down to one," said Perry.

"They were having a hard time. A lot of them gave up farming. A lot of them went to find part time jobs," said former packing company general manager Loren Mochida, who thought it might be over too, until he says he saw something amazing: a field trial for a mysterious variety called the Rainbow Papaya.

"It made me a believer," he said.

As the ring spot pummeled Hawaii's papaya supply, Dr. Dennis Gonsalves and a team of scientists had been quietly creating one answer for a huge virus problem -- a genetically modified papaya resistant to the ring spot.  The results were dramatic.

"So, we knew that we had something," said Gonsalves.

Today, the vast majority of papayas grown on the Big Island are GMOs.

"We are in our 8th generation of selecting, so we're getting really good yields now," said Perry.

"Most of these people are well intentioned and they think they did save it," said

Russell Ruderman, who owns and operates the Island Natural chain on the Big Island.

But controversy has paralleled the growth of the GMO Papaya industry.

"I just have a fundamentally different point of view. They didn't save it. They killed it," he said.

Ruderman said GMO papayas may have saved crops, but it also cut prices, stunted testing on traditional breeding, and fueled a negative perception.

"For better or for worse, we took our whole papaya industry and put it into this category of foods that people are boycotting across the country," he said.

Despite fears, many are forging ahead, as the industry aims to branch out into foreign markets.

It’s a growth spurt that some are depending on.

"If they know GMO papaya is safe enough, and the quality and everything tastes good, I believe they eat it," said Hawaiian Fresh Products Owner Toshi Aoki.

In December, Costco became the first businesses to sell genetically modified papayas in Japan and those papayas came straight from the Big Island.

Packing houses are rolling out new boxes and new labels as the industry flip-flops over whether people are making the right move.

Toshi Aoki runs one of the four remaining papaya packing houses in the state -- selling in the islands, to the mainland, and overseas.

"I used to ship about 80 to 90 percent to Japan," he said.

But when the ring spot virus devastated Big Island crops, production tanked.

Countries such as the Philippines and Mexico took over producing more and more of what Hawaii, for a while, could not provide.

Aoki said the introduction of the GMO Papaya did help.

While a ban on that fruit in countries such as Japan sank sales, sales in Canada and the U.S. survived.

"Right now,  we're shipping about 10 to 15 percent to Japan and about 85 percent to the mainland," he said.

It was good news for Farmer Rusty Perry, who nearly lost it all when the ring spot virus devastated his crops in the early 1990s.

He still tries to grow non-GMO papayas, but said those trees rarely last a year.

"You learn something in agriculture. Things change and you best learn how to change with it," he said.

But as GMO varieties grow, organic farmers are wondering what happened to their share of the market, especially when some say demand for non-GMO is rising fast.

"I can't supply people with enough to meet demand. They've been taking the off-grade stuff and bringing up to the front and they say it still sells just as fast," said Big Island organic farmer Josiah Hunt.

"Organic farming was and still is the fastest growing part of agriculture.  It also fetches the highest prices," said Ruderman.

Last December, there was another shot in the arm for GMO papayas.

After 10 years of rejection, Japan lifted its ban on Hawaii's GMO papaya, but only if it came with a label.

"GM papaya has to have a sticker, each single papaya," said Aoki.

He said were already putting labels on the papayas beforehand, but after deregulation they created new labels with Japanese writing on it -- labels that not only say GMO, or non-GMO, but also does so in Japanese.

"So, that didn't cost very much to put the sticker on?" asked reporter Lara Yamada.

"No. No," said Aoki. "They can choose either GMO or non-GMO."

It’s a choice that has anti-GMO groups on fire.

Ruderman, who is running for state senate, says he will help reintroduce bills, yet again next legislative session, to do the same in Hawaii.

"It took 10 years before Japan opened up their markets to GMO papaya, and they required it to be labeled.  I don't see why we shouldn't expect our food to be labeled if it's genetically modified here in the United States," he said.

In the meantime, these folks say they're focusing on what they believe consumers want and need.

"People are asking for it. People want organic papayas and I'm trying to give them that option," said Hunt.

"I've been kind of sort of optimistic," said Perry.

"Our challenge is to get everybody working together," said Aoki.

Hawaii producers are actively seeking other businesses in Japan, especially supermarkets, to market GMO Rainbow papaya.

And, in just a few weeks, Hawaii scientists will be sending a proposal to China, to hopefully deregulate GMO papayas in that country.


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