Saturday, September 11, 2004

Critics say engineered
papayas are a threat

Cross-pollination has been
occurring, according to tests

Pollen from genetically engineered papayas has contaminated at least some ordinary papaya plants in Hawaii, say advocates for controls on genetically modified organisms.

Evidence of such "genetic drift" with papaya was recently confirmed with testing of Hawaii papaya samples at a mainland lab, representatives of Hawaii Genetic Engineering Action Network and GMO-Free Hawaii said Thursday.

Proponents of the genetically engineered Rainbow and SunUp papayas agreed that pollen can spread to nonengineered trees, but said they would need to know more about testing methodologies before agreeing there is a problem.

At a press conference at the University of Hawaii-Hilo campus, farmers dumped several dozen papayas into a trash can labeled with a biohazard symbol, said Melanie Bondera, an organic farmer and member of Hawaii Genetic Engineering Action Network.

The groups hope their efforts will spur UH, which helped develop the genetically engineered papaya, to "help protect local agriculture by taking responsibility for cleaning up GMO papaya contamination," Bondera said.

The Rainbow and SunUp papaya varieties were engineered to resist the ringspot virus, which struck the Big Island's papaya crop hard in the 1990s and threatened to wipe it out, said Dennis Gonsalves, one of the varieties' co-creators and now director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo.

Some growers in the Puna area of the Big Island raise Rainbow engineered papayas within 20 meters of nonengineered papayas -- and still are able to sell the latter to Japan, which will not buy genetically altered foods, Gonsalves said.

About 90 percent of the state's papayas are grown in Puna, according to state Department of Agriculture statistics. Statewide, 44 percent of papayas are the genetically altered Rainbow, while 42 percent are Kapoho and 10 percent are Sunrise, both nonengineered varieties. Several other varieties account for 4 percent of the crop.

The state produced 42.6 million pounds of papayas in 2003, valued at $13 million. Hawaii is the only significant U.S. producer of papaya. Seeds for the engineered papayas were made widely available in 1998.

"If you really want to raise papaya that's not contaminated, you can, and it's not that difficult," Gonsalves said. Growers simply put paper bags over flowers on non-genetically modified trees during pollination, to ensure they self-pollinate, he said. However, if people are against genetically modifying organisms philosophically, Gonsalves said, "then no use arguing."

The conflict is more than philosophical, said Mark Query, an arborist who founded GMO-Free Kauai. The idea that farmers who do not want genetic alterations to their crops have to take preventive action to protect their crops is "backwards," he said.

"It should be the other way around. For example, if corn farmers live next to each other and one decides to have cattle, whose responsibility is it to put up the fence to keep the cattle out of the corn? The cattle farmer," Query said.

Organic farmers should not have to pay to test their produce to prove that it is not altered, Bondera said.

According to sample testing conducted by Genetic ID Inc., Kauai, Oahu and Big Island papayas that were not genetically engineered showed varying amounts of contamination, meaning that genes from genetically altered plants were found in them.

The samples were provided and testing paid for by the coalition groups.



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