Thursday, December 11, 2008

Archive: GMOs in Hawai'i, Part I: Papaya's Uncertain Savior

(From the Journal, circa 2001)

A nationally broadcast PBS special highlights two scientists’ attempts to “save” Hawai`i’s papaya industry with a genetically modified, virus-resistant papaya. But on the ground salvation is proving more difficult.

The documentary opened with a sweeping helicopter-born view of waves crashing on the Puna Coast. The camera swept inward, then zoomed in....

Hawai`i’s papaya crisis, and the new fruit which was touted as its solution, had become the lead in for Harvest of Fear, a nationally aired PBS documentary on a growing world-wide controversy: the introduction of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) into the human diet and the worldwide ecology. The show’s opening segment focused on Hawai`i-born Cornell researchers Dennis and Carol Gonsalves and their efforts to combat the devastating papaya ringspot virus by introducing a strain of papaya containing genes from the virus itself. “A decade of work created a breakthrough, and perhaps saved an industry,” intoned the show’s narrator.

During the next two hours, the show kept cutting back to Gonsalves’ story, making it a unifying element in two hours of interviews, narrative and commentary on the question of GMOs, which in the past six years have become a common part of most Americans’ diets without most Americans even being aware of it. Genetically modified soybeans and corn have become common ingredients in everything from baby food to cereal to soda pop. Agrochemical giants such as Monsanto have made gene-spliced crops a mainstay: the show featured a Monsanto spokesman declaring that “We stopped all chemical investment...and reinvested in biotechnology.”

The program was a joint production of Frontline and Nova, two of the most prestigious names in the documentary business. It included interviews with scientists involved in GMO research, including a virus-resistant sweet potato in Africa and a strain of corn that could tolerate soil with high concentrations of aluminum in Mexico. It also included arguments from GMO opponents, from Dr. Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists to a spokesperson for an extreme environmental group that had set fire to a university office. But the special still drew some heavy flack from viewers who posted responses on the PBS website. Some comments accused the producers of using scare tactics against GMOs. Even more viewers accused Frontline and Nova of kowtowing to biotech companies. One viewer called the program “the longest commercial I've ever seen.”

Whatever the program’s overall fairness, its presentation on the GM papaya was one-sided by definition. The only interviews that the show featured from the Big Island were of the two scientists and of Big Island farmer Rusty Perry, who participated in the tests of the papaya. The program mentioned that the Gonsalves’ GM papaya had suffered a “setback” when Japan refused to accept the papaya without extensive testing, but no mention was made of any local opposition to the plants.

In fact, the opposition to the papayas has been substantial--and includes not only environmental activists, but many local farmers. Most of the fears about GMOs that the show expressed through the voices of mainland and European opponents--that the plants could accidentally crossbreed with non-GM strains, that the product will not gain acceptance by consumers, and that the targeted pest could build up immunity to the GM plant’s defenses, for instance--also have been expressed locally, in regard to GM papaya and over 50 other genetically engineered crops that have been released in the state.

So far, the claims that GM papayas will save the industry have proven premature. The factors behind this turn of events have as much to do with politics and economics as with science.

“I don’t think that they saved the industry at all. The problem is, if the people on the mainland will even buy it,” believes Ernesto Tagalicud, who heads a dissident farmer’s organization called the Papaya Freedom Fighters. Because of low prices for the GM papaya, called Rainbow, “The people could not produce more, and couldn’t afford to buy fertilizer to maintain their productivity. If you take a picture of the fields on the Kapoho-Pohoiki Road, that will tell you that they haven’t been fertilizing....

“A lot of the farmers did what they were told. They planted Rainbow. And they either cut it down or sold it for next to nothing,” notes community activist Ginny Aste, a past manager of the Papaya Administrative Committee (PAC) and current secretary of the community non-profit Na Poi O Aina. She can empathize with the farmers’ plight. Last fall, the price of Rainbow fell as low as $17 a bin. It has since rebounded somewhat, but still sells for about half of the price of Kapoho Solo, the most popular non-GM papaya. As of early April this year, a bin of Kapoho Solo sold for around $200.

“We kill a premium crop to put out a junk crop that gets barely $17 a bin here?” Aste marvels.

The word “kill” here is quite literal. At one point, the State Department of Agriculture had proposed cutting down and replacing all but a few small fields of quarantined Kapoho Solo with a “sea of transgenic papaya.” Farmers rebelled. In a series of angry meetings last year, they demanded, and finally got, the right to police their own fields for infected trees, instead of having their entire fields cut down. An $800,000 dollar program to eradicate non-transgenic papaya and replace it with transgenic Rainbow was reduced to a program to destroy abandoned fields of diseased papaya.

“We told the industry we would take down all the abandoned fields by the end of December, which we have done,” says Myron Isherwood of the State Department of Agriculture. “It cost us about $35,000.”

Current PAC Manager Emerson Llantero puts a positive spin on Rainbow’s economic debut. “In Hawai‘i, Rainbow is the preferred variety for the consumers,” he maintains “They’re asking for it, they’re actually consuming it more than for the regular varieties.” He says that the transgenic fruit’s low prices have had “something to do with the principles of supply and demand. This is the first crop and we didn’t actually know how it performs, in terms of yield, and we found out that under commercial situations, it yielded more than double the amount than for the regular variety. I’m sure that for next time, since we have the data on the yield, the growers will find a balance....[of] how much acreage they will plant in order to produce what the market demands....”

“I don’t think that rainbow produces that much more fruit per tree,” believes Aste. “It’s simply that they have a surplus of Rainbow because they don’t have a market for it. They were encouraging the farmers to plant because they thought they could break through the market in Japan and sell genetic there. So far, it hasn’t worked.”

Llantero is optimistic that the situation in Japan will change soon. “For Japan, there are two approvals needed to be able to export a rainbow papaya to Japan: for the Ministry of Agricultural and the Ministry of Health,” he says. “We have already received the approval from the Ministry of Agriculture, so we are waiting for the approval from the Ministry of Health.”

“He’s said that for two years,” scoffs Aste.

Charges of inequitable distribution of the new Rainbow seed, allegations that the quarantine zone favored large canning companies over independent farmers, and a University of Hawaii lawsuit against farmer Mike Durkin for planting Rainbow seed without authorization--despite the fact that PAC members were slated to get the seed for free--further eroded the farmers’ trust in the state’s program.

“The issue was losing control over what we had developed,” says Professor Steve Ferreira of the UH-Manoa Department of Plant and Environmental Protection Sciences, of the Durkin lawsuit. “It put Hawai`i in a very uncomfortable situation in having to say, you gave us permission to do this work, but we lost control of the material. The ability for us to do work in the future got put at risk, as well as the ability to control intellectual property. What happened in the case of Durkin’s situation is never tolerated.”

Now that Rainbow has gone into commercial production, however, controlling the spread of the transgenic strain may be impossible, even with lawsuits. Durkin claims that he got his seed from papayas bought at a local farmer’s market. Other farmers worry that even if they plant non-transgenic varieties, pollen from neighboring fields of Rainbow could contaminate their crop. Those fears have been exacerbated by a recent Canadian court case, in which a Canola seed farmer who had planted non-GM seed discovered traces of a patented GM strain in his fields--and Monsanto successfully sued him for patent violation.

Ferreira says that cross-pollination could occur, but that if it did, the GM genes would be detected only in the seeds, not in the flesh of the fruit. But farmers say that could still cut them out of both the Japanese market and the organic market.

Organic papaya is currently not a major crop in Hawai`i, but it could be a potentially lucrative one. Organic crops often command much higher prices than those raised with conventional commercial pesticides (or from GM seeds).

“You can raise an acre of organic papaya and make value-added products, and make more money than you’d make if you raised twenty acres of papayas selling for $17 a bin,” believes Aste.

But agricultural economist Dr. Eileen O’hora-Weir, who inspects crops for the Hawaii Organic Farmer’s Association (HOFA)Hawai`i Organic Farmers’ Association, notes that food grown using biotech and agrochemical product aren’t required to be labeled as such, while organic products have to documented meticulously, placing an unfair burden on the latter.

“We’re taxing the wrong groups of farmers. Right now now we’re having to pay certification fees to prove that we’re following organic practices, and soon we’ll have to be paying GMO testing fees.”

Riding a wave of farmer dissatisfaction, the Papaya Freedom Fighters swept the PAC’s board elections on the island last month, electing their entire slate of candidates. The new members must still be appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. But if they are confirmed, Tagalicud promises a somewhat different direction. Right now, he says, he is “looking at the project, looking up the research.” The farmers want to develop a better marketing plan for the entire industry. And they’re open to looking at possible alternative methods of controlling the virus. “Maybe use a vaccine. Maybe use a fertilizer that suppresses the virus,” Tagalicud suggests.

Llantero is skeptical. “I think industry and the researchers have spent more than enough money to find controls for the virus, and research shows that here is no cure for the virus except for genetic engineering, which has been done,” he maintains. “Further research on controlling the virus--looking for chemicals, whether or organic or non-organic chemicals--to solve the virus problem, will be a waste of money.”

But Aste believes that state officials have not looked seriously at alternative control methods--and that when she and the farmers proposed it in the past, they were ignored. We said, “Fine, cut trees but put 230K toward research, and some of it toward organics. They wouldn’t even listen to us.”

She worries that the state’s plan to use some of the leftover funds from the abortive non-GM papaya eradication plan for “education” would just lead to more of the same. “What are they going to educate about?” she asks. “They’re gong to say ‘Plant genetic.’ Or they’re going to say ‘cut trees if they get the virus.’ We’ve been doing that already. Why would you pay Department. of Agriculture people say the same thing?

Meanwhile, Isherwood says that the papaya farmer’s plan to police themselves seems to be going well: “The industry said that they would take the responsibility for having their members cut newly infected non-transgenic trees down, and by and large, they are doing that. We have a crew that goes out to survey, and the reports that I get back from them are that the growers are taking down the diseased trees on a pretty timely basis--which is a good sign.”

In some senses, the hybrid plan for coping with the virus may be working. Questions about whether the world will accept GM papayas remain unanswered, prices for the new GM papaya have been dismal, and the virus hasn’t been eradicated. But Isherwood says the virus isn’t completely out of control, either. “You can find the virus around,” he says, “but it’s not nearly as bad as in the mid-1990’s so far, definitely.”

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