Genetic Traits Spread to Non-Engineered Papayas in Hawaii

HILO, Hawaii, September 10, 2004 (ENS) - Engineered papaya genes are showing up in fruits and seeds that were thought to be traditional, prompting a coalition of outraged farmers, consumers and backyard growers Thursday to bring their contaminated papayas back to the University of Hawaii, which created and released the engineered papaya.

Independent laboratory testing results issued this week found the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in fruit from organic farms. Contamination was also found in the stock of non-genetically engineered seeds being sold commercially by the University of Hawaii.

Genetic engineering of papayas helped growers overcome the ringspot virus, which by 1997 had decimated Hawaii’s fifth largest crop. Production had fallen by nearly 40 percent, farmers were going out of business, and Hawaii’s $35 million papaya industry was in danger of collapsing.

Researchers identified and cloned the gene that produces the coat protein in the virus, then inserted the gene into the papaya, making the plant resistant to the ringspot virus.

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The Rainbow variety of genetically modified papaya is free of the ringspot virus. (Photo courtesy Hawaii Papaya Industry Association)
Within four years of the introduction of the genetically engineered fruit, papaya production had rebounded to levels near where they were before the ringspot virus invasion.

But growers of organic and traditional papayas say the spreading of genetically modified fruits and seeds put their operations at risk. They are demanding that the University of Hawaii (UH) provide a plan for "cleaning up papaya contamination." The coalition also called for liability protection for local growers and the prevention of genetic contamination of other Hawaiian commodity crops.

"It is an outrage that UH is selling contaminated papaya seeds to our local farmers and growers," said Toi Lahti, an organic farmer and papaya grower from the Big Island.

"Not only could organic farmers lose their certification by growing genetically engineered papayas, GMO papaya seeds are also patented by Monsanto among others," Lahti said. "This opens farmers to oppressive lawsuits based on claims of patent infringement, where corporations such as Monsanto have not hesitated to sue even those who unknowingly planted such seeds."

Lahti was referring to Canadian canola grower Percy Schmeiser who this May lost a case brought by Monsanto, which sued Schmeiser because their patented Round-Up Ready Canola was in his fields. Monsanto took the position that even though Schmeiser had not planted the patented canola and did not know it was on his property, he must pay their technology fee.

Similar unintentional contamination of Hawaiian papayas was evident from lab test results. All samples were tested by Genetic ID, one of the world's leading scientific laboratories for genetic testing. Composite samples from the Big Island and Oahu both revealed GMO contamination.

Nearly 20,000 papaya seeds from across the Big Island, 80 percent of which came from organic farms and the rest from backyard gardens or wild trees, showed a contamination level of 50 percent.

Papaya farmers raised concerns about the impact the "contamination crisis" could have on export markets, particularly to countries like Japan that have stringent regulations about importing genetically engineered crops.

"These tests indicate that UH's non-GMO seed stock is contaminated, and so there can be no doubt that the university must take immediate action to protect farmers, consumers and the environment," said Mark Query of GMO-Free Hawaii. "Papaya contamination is a case study in the threat that GMO contamination presents to local agriculture. It is now clear that coexistence of traditional and GMO crops is impossible."

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Melanie Bondera, owner of Kanalani Ohana Farm on the Island of Hawaii (Photo courtesy Tea & Coffee Trade Journal)
"The Big Island is home to most of the commercial GMO papaya fields in the state," said Melanie Bondera, a farmer from Kona and member of the Hawaii Genetic Engineering Action Network.

"Despite the problems local growers have had with the GMO papaya," said Bondera, "the university is now genetically engineering taro, pineapple, banana, sugarcane, and other commodity crops."

"We do not support the further release of other genetically engineered commodity crops," she said. The coalition is seeking a commitment from the university to fund research into local, sustainable agriculture.

The Cornell Research Foundation and the Papaya Administrative Committee, whose grower members helped finance the research, have the license to the genetically improved papaya seeds. They have allowed Hawaii farmers to use the seeds for free.

The Volcano Isle Fruit Company, a member of the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association, is delighted with the results of genetically engineered papayas. The company says the two genetically engineered varieties, Rainbow and Sunup, are a success.

The company said researchers produced a "papaya that looks and tastes good, preserves the high nutrition, and flavors of the Hawaiian varieties."

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Plant physiologist Maureen Fitch, a member of the team that engineered the virus resistant papayas, picks a fruit from a non-genetically engineered Laie Gold tree at a farm on Oahu. (Photo by Peggy Greb courtesy USDA)
The research team includes Dennis Gonsalves, UH graduate and center director of the USDA Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo; Richard Manshardt, horticulturist in UH’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources; UH graduate Maureen Masuda Fitch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Jerry Slightom of Pharmacia-Upjohn Co. The team was awarded the prestigious 2002 Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Award for Agriculture.

But the Hawaiian Genetic Engineering Action Network says all genetically modified crops, including papayas, are disastrous for Hawaii.

The organization points to a 2002 study that suggests that the papaya ringspot virus coat protein is a potential allergen because it contained a string of amino acids identical to a known allergen. The study by G. Kleter and A. Peijnenburg, "Screening of transgenic proteins expressed in transgenic food crops for the presence of short amino acid sequences identical to potential, IgE-binding linear epitopes of allergens," is published in BioMed Central Structural Biology 2002, 2, 8-19.

Hawaii has more test sites for genetically engineered plants per acre than any other state in the nation. As of November 2002, there were 166 field test being conducted on over 8,000 acres of land. Genetic engineering companies will not disclose to the public what genetic tests are being done or where they are being conducted citing the locations as "confidential business information."

Birds, bees, and wind can carry genetically engineered pollen great distances where it can contaminate other plants. "Genetically engineered organisms are alive," the organization says. "Once they escape into the environment, they reproduce and mutate. They can never be recalled."