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Virus-Spliced GE Papayas Contaminating Organic Crops in Hawaii

Controversy rains on GMO crops

By Julie Grass
Ka Leo Associate News Editor
October 12, 2004


After the papaya ringspot virus threatened to destroy Hawai'i's papaya
industry when it first appeared in 1992, genetically engineered papayas were
released in 1998 as an attempt to stop the potentially-devastating virus.

The release of genetically-modified products has sparked controversy between
organic farmers and those who opted to use genetically-modified seeds to
save their crops.

Scientists, some at the University of Hawai'i, genetically engineered the
"Rainbow" and "Sunup" papaya varieties to be resistant to the virus.

Ania Wieczorek, biotechnology education specialist at UH's College of
Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, said the papaya was created by the
university for local farmers to solve the local problem.

"If not for GM papaya, papaya would not be grown commercially in Hawai'i
today because the virus was so severe," Wieczorek said.

Although the genetically-engineered papayas were adopted by some papaya
farmers, many organic papaya farmers remain concerned that their organic
crops might get contaminated by genetically-engineered papayas.

If contaminated, their fruits would not be able to be sold under the organic
label.

An organic food excludes anything "genetically engineered," according to the
United States Department of Agriculture. To be classified as "genetically
engineered," at least one gene from an organism is intentionally introduced
into another organism, usually of a different species. This is done to
improve the agricultural quality and value of the crop.

However, some organic farmers' non-GMO crops are being cross pollinated with
GMO pollen and their crops are being genetically contaminated without their
knowledge.

Melanie Bondera, an organic farmer in Kona and member of the Hawai'i Genetic
Engineering Action Network, said organic farmers who are caught selling
genetically-engineered products may lose their market and organic
certification.

"If GMO is found on your land, you can be decertified," said Bondera.

CTAHR Plant Pathologist Stephen Ferrara defends the genetic engineering of
papaya seeds, saying the procedure has clearly saved the papaya industry.

"We were almost too late," he said. "If we were two years later, the
industry would have been lost."

"The virus limited production of papaya for many years," said Dennis
Gonsalves, Director of the USDA Pacific Basin Agriculture Research Center.
"(We) tried to get resistance naturally but did not succeed."

The ringspot virus is transmitted by insects and can be difficult to
control. Once a plant is infected with the virus, it will never recover.
Symptoms appear about three weeks after infection. They include the death of
young seedlings that will never grow to produce fruit and the yellowing of
leaves in older trees. The older trees will produce increasingly smaller
fruits and eventually die.

According to press releases, Toivo Lahti, an organic farmer on the Big
Island, said he found GMO contamination in his family's 170-tree organic
papaya orchard.

"We found that I had unknowingly planted a single GMO seed in the middle of
the orchard," he said. "The pollen from this tree contaminated and made
suspect all the papayas on the farm. We cut them all down and lost our seed
source and thousands of dollars."

Various seed samples were sent for testing at Genetic ID, one of the world's
leading scientific laboratories for genetic testing, where seeds from
organic farms were confirmed to be genetically engineered.

Seeds from a package of "Solo Waimanalo," a non-GMO seed analyzed by Genetic
ID, also tested positive for GMO contamination. The seeds were purchased
from UH.

"Now we know that UH is also selling contaminated papaya seeds, so even if
farmers buy non-GMO seeds from the university, they could still be planting
the genetically-engineered tree," Lahti said. "Unless immediate steps are
taken to prevent the spread and takeover of our healthy native papayas, the
GMO papaya will destroy non-GMO farmers' ability to produce successful
crops."

Richard Manshardt, a professor at UH's Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences
department who helped create the GM papaya, said "varietal
cross-contamination in UH seeds is a serious concern."

"Not because there is any health risks known to be connected with GMO
technology, but because the contents of seed packets should match what is on
the label," Manshardt said. "If someone wants to avoid transgenic papayas
they should be able to do so by choosing non-transgenic cultivars."

But Manshardt said the low level of varietal mixing found in the 'Waimanalo'
papaya seed, which was between 1/100 and 1/1000 seeds, is within acceptable
rates for certified seeds of many crops.

"The fact that the contaminating variety is genetically engineered is
irrelevant except to organic producers," Manshardt said. "At this low level
of out-crossing, I don't think CTAHR or ADSC have anything to be ashamed of,
but we will want to do what we can to minimize it."

Manshardt also said it is possible to safely cultivate organic and GMO crops
as long as neighboring growers communicate with each other.

"The bottom line seems to be that there is no technical barrier to the
coexistence of organic and transgenic crops, as long as growers are willing
to cooperate," he said.

Manshardt said that, according to experiments, separating GM fields from
non-GMO fields by a quarter mile is enough to block contamination.

But Bondera disagreed and said: "I believe coexistence is not possible in
the chaotic, natural world we live in. We can't control the wind, birds or
pollen," she said. "The problem with GMO papaya contamination show us that
there are too many unanswered questions about agricultural biotech to be
releasing new experimental genetically-engineered organisms into our
environment."

GMO Regulation

The United States has used genetic engineering since 1994 when the first
genetically engineered crop was released for commercial production, the
FlavrSavr tomato.

Before the GMO papaya was commercialized in May 1998, it went through a
"complicated review process," according to Ferreira. The review included
seven years of testing.

"These crops don't happen overnight," Wieczorek said. "The time you start
working on the crop that you are interested in improving, from the time it
is released, is about 10 years."

The Food and Drug Administration, the USDA, and the Environmental Protection
Agency all have to check if the crop is safe for human consumption and for
the environment, according to Wieczorek. If the agencies approve it, the
crop becomes deregulated.

"When a crop is deregulated it is deemed safe," said Gonsalves. After
deregulation, crops do not have to be tested under controlled conditions and
can be sold in stores.

Gonsalves said testing "shows that the papaya was like any other papaya. The
vitamin levels are the same."

The EPA considers genetically engineering to be a type of pesticide because
it regulates a virus.

Although GM papayas have been deregulated, many organic farmers remain
concerned that their crops could be contaminated.

"GMO-Free Hawai'i is pointing its finger at UH to cleanup contamination,"
Bondera said. "They released the seeds without proper control, did not
protect the seed site and never educated the public about the seeds."

However, Ferreira said cleaning up the contamination is not necessarily an
issue for the university.

"The seeds are completely legal to plant anywhere. We have no control over
how they are used," he said. "The question should be, how can organic and
non-organic farmers do what they want and do what is legal. The university
should be a part of that discussion."

Although papayas can be deregulated in the United States, the same is not
true in Japan, which made up 40 percent of the market for Hawaiian papayas
before GM papayas were first released. Some of that export has been lost due
to GM papayas, according to GMO Free Hawai'i.

According to Gonsalves, Japan has a zero tolerance policy for GM crops. The
Japanese government, he said, tests crops for genetic engineering and the
papayas do not leave the port until testing is completed.

Additional testing is being done in the United States to persuade the
Japanese market to accept GM papaya. Meanwhile, non-GMO farmers from the Big
Island are still shipping their papayas to Japan.

"If it is true that there is such big contamination, these farmers would
never be able to ship to Japan," said Wieczorek.

Under federal law, genetically-engineered foods do not have to be labeled in
grocery stores. Wieczorek said the FDA only labels foods that could impact a
person's health.

"Consumers should take responsibility and educate themselves," she said. "If
people do not want to eat genetically engineered crops, you have to buy
organic."

Seventy percent of foods on supermarket shelves have traces of genetic
engineering, Wieczorek said.

The university also is involved in projects surrounding the genetic
engineering of other crops. According to Manshardt, there is work being done
on building the virus resistance of pineapple, bananas, citrus work and
coffee plants.

Bondera said, "The problems with GMO contamination show us that there are
too many unanswered questions about agricultural biotech to be releasing new
experimental genetically engineered organisms into our environment."