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Controversy Over GE Virus-Spliced Hawaiian Papayas
July 20, 1999, New York Times - Stalked by Deadly Virus, Papaya Lives to
Breed Again By CAROL KAESUK YOON

On the island of Hawaii, on what had been acres of
withering, disease-infested plants, farmers this
summer are walking among rows of lush green trees,
harvesting the world's first crop of genetically
engineered papayas.

Designed with a gene
that allows them to
withstand the papaya
ringspot virus -- an
incurable disease that
ruins fruit and can
sicken trees to the point
of killing them -- these
genetically modified
plants are already
being credited with
saving an industry that
was on its way out.

In the past seven years as the virus wiped out farm after
farm in Hawaii's major papaya growing region, farmers
continually sought out new land in what became
increasingly futile attempts to escape the spreading
disease. Some farmers grew so desperate that they
broke into experimental fields and stole genetically
engineered papaya seeds before they were approved
for use by the Department of Agriculture.

"This industry was dying," said Emerson Llantero,
manager of the Papaya Administrative Committee, a
research and marketing group supported by papaya
farms, most of which are small, family operations of 10
to 20 acres. The new papaya, he said, is a second
chance for growers.

In an expanding debate over potential problems with
genetically engineered crops, including corn pollen that
can kill monarch butterflies and Europe's reluctance to
accept genetically engineered foods, some have argued
that these novel plants have provided relatively minor
tangible benefits.

But farmers like Orlando Manuel, who has abandoned
several farms in an effort to escape the virus, would
argue otherwise for the new papaya. He said this year
that he planted his entire 20 acres in the genetically
modified plant known as Rainbow.

"I'd be out of business without it," Mr. Manuel said.
"There's nowhere to go. You can run but you cannot
hide."

The first of the Rainbow papayas are on sale in grocery
stores in Hawaii and on the mainland. Like other
genetically modified crops, they have drawn little
reaction from the American public. Still, the new
papaya is not without controversy or risks.

Organic farmers say they are concerned about
ecological risks.

Researchers inserted the disease virus's DNA into the
plant's DNA, using a method that had succeeded in
protecting other crops, though the exact mechanism of
how this works is still being investigated. The risks
include the creation of new and more potent viral
diseases. Growers also worry that the Rainbow plants
may contaminate nearby organic papaya plants by
fertilizing them with genetically modified pollen.



"There's been alarm here in the
local area," said Roy Smith,
president of Hawaii Organic
Farmers Association. Mr. Smith
said he had been receiving calls
from farmers and consumers.

At the same time, the
international backlash against
genetically modified crops has
begun to hit papayas. Dr. Dennis
Gonsalves, plant pathologist at
Cornell University and one of the
creators of the new papaya, said
the Mexican Government
requested that he destroy experimental fields of
genetically modified papaya in Mexico because of
growing concerns over possible environmental risks,
risks that he says do not exist.

But acknowledging that there could be other risks from
genetically modified papaya, Dr. Gonsalves said even
these were minimal compared with the benefits.

"People use infinitesimal calculations that this thing
might happen and this thing might happen," Dr.
Gonsalves said. "If everybody thinks that everything's
got to be perfect with genetically engineered stuff, then
you can forget about it. We can let the papaya industry
die."

Hawaii's farmers have planted about 1,000 acres in
Rainbow, one-third of the papaya acreage in the state.
Mr. Llantero said farmers were planting the new seeds
as fast as they became available.

But despite the risk from the papaya ringspot virus, not
everyone is ready to plant Rainbow. Industry watchers
say some growers wonder whether there is a sufficient
market for genetically modified papayas. Typically 35
percent to 40 percent of the Hawaiian harvest is sold to
Japan, where genetically modified papayas have not
been approved for sale.

The disease first appeared on the Hawaiian island of
Oahu in the 1940's, and slowly spread from farm to
farm and island to island. Seven years ago, the virus
made its way to the island of Hawaii, where nearly all
the state's papayas are grown. Biologists say none of
their attempts to cure or prevent the disease -- including
traditional plant breeding, removal of diseased trees
and a type of plant vaccination -- were effective.
(Though called trees, papaya plants are actually
extremely large herbs.)

It was Dr. Gonsalves, with colleagues at the University
of Hawaii and the Agriculture Department, who began
efforts to create a virus-resistant papaya.

Test plots grown in infected areas of Hawaii made
clear the genetically modified, or transgenic, plant's
ability to resist the virus. Transgenic plants grew
healthy and green, side by side with traditional
varieties that yellowed, withered and died.

But at the same time that
Rainbow has solved a problem
for some farmers, it may be
creating problems for others. Dr.
Gonsalves said that organic
papaya plants growing near
genetically modified papaya
could be fertilized by genetically
engineered pollen. The fruits
produced would then carry seeds
with the engineered virus gene. If
these seeds are replanted by
organic farmers, then they will
unknowingly be growing
genetically modified fruits, which
are by definition, not organic.

"Growers want to know, is there
a cost-effective way to make sure
that they're not planting
genetically modified crops?" Mr. Smith said. "It's
difficult to find an affordable path to that kind of
integrity." He said Hawaiian farmers produced about
$300,000 worth of organic papaya each year, compared
with nonorganic papaya, which was worth about $18
million a year to farmers.

In addition, the plant may pose broader ecological
risks. Dr. Peter Palukaitis, molecular virologist at the
Scottish Crop Research Institute in Dundee, said there
were a number of ways in which the new papaya could
lead to the creation of new viruses, as is the case
whenever a virus gene is inserted into a plant's DNA.

For example, researchers say the genetically
engineered virus gene in Rainbow may end up mixing
with DNA from other viruses that infect these papaya
plants, possibly resulting in the creation of new,
potentially more virulent disease-causing viruses. With
scientists still working to understand such interactions,
it remains unclear how readily new viruses may arise
by these means. Other risks include synergy, a situation
in which the mere presence of the genetically
engineered virus in the plant's DNA makes it sicker
than it would be otherwise when infected by another
plant virus.

Rainbow does not have wild relatives in Hawaii, so it
cannot spread its genetically engineered genes by
creating hybrids with native plants.

In addition, Dr. Gonsalves said there appeared to be no
risk to humans from eating the protein produced by the
virus gene in the papaya. He said people had been
eating infected fruits containing the viral protein for
years with no ill effect.

Researchers say, despite its apparently iron-clad
resistance, Rainbow is unlikely to protect Hawaii's
farmers forever. A new virus might make its way to the
islands, evolve on the islands, or already exist there in
low numbers, and it could overcome the protection now
offered by Rainbow.

"We'd all be nuts to say that this is the final solution,"
said Dr. Richard Manshardt, tropical fruit crops
breeder and a creator of Rainbow, at the University of
Hawaii. "Biological systems evolve."

Like all Rainbow growers, Mr. Manuel received his
genetically modified seeds free from the Papaya
Administrative Committee. Unlike nearly every other
genetically modified crop that has been approved for
commercial use, the new papaya was not produced by
profit-motivated seed companies, but by researchers at
Cornell University, the University of Hawaii and the
Agriculture Department who have allowed growers to
use it free of charge.

But Mr. Llantero said the Papaya Administrative
Committee was looking into selling the seeds to recoup
the costs of seed production, and Dr. Manshardt said
the University of Hawaii was also beginning to look
into ways of earning money for research from the fruit
they helped to create.

Ultimately what will determine the success of the new
papayas, which differ somewhat in taste and color from
the traditional variety grown in Hawaii, is whether
consumers are interested in eating them.

"Food is what you're brought up with,"said Stephanie
Whalen, president and director of research at the
Hawaii Agriculture Research Center. As for the market
that the transgenic papaya can command, she added,
"Only time will tell."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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