Vicky Boyd, Staff Writer
Vicky Boyd, Staff Writer

In this era where shippers and processors are taking extra steps to ensure consumers know their products are free of genetically modified organisms, Hawaiian papaya growers are going the opposite direction.

In a move some might consider bold or possibly even heresy, the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association, Hilo, has taken out a two-page advertisement in the Hawaiian Airlines magazine discussing the nutrient-rich superfood and how genetic engineering helped save the industry.

“From the papaya perspective, we don’t have anything to hide,” said Eric Weinert, general manager of Calavo Grower Inc.’s Hawaii operations, Keaau. “We have everything to be proud of, and let’s just say it proudly.”

Since the ad ran, he said none of his salespeople has received any comments — negative or positive. No other association members have heard feedback, either.

Weinert said he was a bit surprised, but chalks it up to being old news.

“Everybody knows Hawaiian papayas are GMO and have been for 15 years,” he said.

At least within Hawaii, the sentiment is a bit different. Weinert said an emotional and divisive debate continues on the Big Island about whether farmers there should be allowed to grow GMOs at all.

A county council member originally proposed an all-out ban but eventually exempted papayas.

Several agricultural associations, including those representing papayas, cattle producers, nurserymen and cut flowers, banded together to combat the negativity.

“We represent over 2,000 farmers and most of the ag producers on the island,” he said of the coalition. “We thought facts would carry the day, and it didn’t in the end.”

The law passed, but the debate continues and has moved into the courts.

“Hawaii should be talking about food self-reliance and working together, rather than being against anything,” he said.

“For us, we don’t have a choice. We don’t have a (papaya) industry without GMOs.”

That was part of the reason for the papaya association’s first attempt at publicly promoting its GMO heritage, Weinert said.

Back in the early 1990s, papaya ringspot virus had all but destroyed the industry on the islands of Oahu, Kauai and Hawaii. The naturally occurring virus, carried by aphids, is deadly to papaya trees but harmless to animals and most other plants.

Researchers from the University of Hawaii and Cornell University worked together to figure out how to use part of the virus to inoculate papayas against the disease. The process is similar to how scientists create a vaccine to impart resistance to flu viruses.

The result was the Rainbow papaya, a yellow-fleshed hybrid resistant to the ringspot virus that was first planted in 1998 after rigorous federal review. Canada began importing the variety in 2003, and even Japan approved it for sale on Dec. 1, 2011. More than 75% of the islands’ acreage now is planted to Rainbow.

Since the first tree was planted, Hawaiian growers have harvested more than 260 million pounds of Rainbow.

Having feasted on that variety while in Hawaii, I can attest that this is a sweet success story, and it’s all due to GMOs.

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