An alien plant form has invaded Hong Kong and within a few short years has virtually overrun the territory. The invader is a genetically modified form of papayas, which has become so prevalent that a debate is underway as to whether the engineered food should be exempted from the Genetically Modified Food Ordinance, which became law on Sept 1. Local organic farms are mounting vigorous opposition. Kahon Chan reports.
On a typical July morning in Pahoa of Hawaii, papaya farmer Lea Bernardo woke up to a staggering scene: thousands of papaya trees in his farms and in neighboring farms had been chopped down at the trunk, leaving all the fruit to rot. The Hawaii Papaya Industry Association called it was an act of "eco-terrorism" and offered a reward of $10,000 to track down the offenders.
The papayas trees that had been attacked were genetically modified (GM) to resist a deadly ring spot virus, as were the trees on 170 other farms on Oahu and the Big Island. The ring spot virus became epidemic more than half a century ago and during the 1950s wiped out all the papaya farms on the island of Oahu. Scientists from the University of Hawaii came up with a permanent solution in the 1990s - the genetic makeup of papaya plants was partially swapped to make them immune to the virus. The modified plant has been described as transgenic.
Transgenic papayas were first grown commercially in 1998 and now make up the majority of Hawaiian papayas. Though the genetically altered plants were credited with saving the industry, according to Hawaii's Department of Agriculture, the annual yield of papayas in 2009 remained lower than when the ring spot virus was at its peak.