(June 27) Even with the tools of biotechnology, vapor heat treatment and irradiation, growing and marketing papayas in paradise isn’t easy.

Heavy rains during the past year have caused Hawaii production of papayas to decline, and both transgenic and traditional varieties have succumbed to fungus problems.

Higher input costs, a tight labor market and the cost of providing mandatory health insurance also weigh on growers.

Papaya production in 2005 was 28.5 million pounds, the lowest since 1980, U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics reported last fall.

“Papaya trees tend to melt when we get 20 or 30 inches of rain in a month,” said Hilo-based Hawaii Papaya Industry Association president Delan Perry.

He said even the easy-draining soils of the big island were overwhelmed by the rain, which totaled more than 200 inches in many growing regions. Normal precipitation levels are closer to 140 inches a year.

“We normally expect less than 1% tree loss from environmental factors, but the fields we are just starting to harvest are experiencing 15% loss,” he said.

IMPORT PRESSURE

Even as Hawaii output has suffered, imports of papayas from Mexico, Belize and Brazil have chipped away at Hawaii’s market share in the U.S. Imports totaled more than 116,000 metric tons in 2005, or about 255 million pounds. That’s nearly 10 times Hawaii’s output in 2005.

Perry said U.S. imports of Latin American papayas are primarily the larger maridol variety.

“We don’t see it as competition,” Perry said. “If anything, it gets more people trying papayas and trying one of ours, which is much sweeter and smaller.”.

OVER THE RAINBOW

Total papaya area surveyed in the fall was 2,400 acres, up 20% from 2004. The big island accounted for 2,200 acres of the state’s production.

The transgenic rainbow variety made up 53% of the state’s acreage last year, compared with 30% for the kapoho solo variety.

The rainbow was released in 1998 and provided resistance to the papaya ring spot virus, which was threatening to topple the industry. Now, Perry said the variety is estimated to account for 60% of Hawaiian papaya production.

If U.S. supermarket buyers were cautious about the rainbow fruit for the first couple of years, he said there is now no hesitation from U.S. buyers about the transgenic variety. He noted even some health food stores buy the variety.

The rainbow also is accepted into Canada, though Japan still has not approved the variety. Japan also refuses to accept irradiated fruit, taking only papayas treated by vapor heat as the quarantine protocol for fruit flies.

Hawaiian papaya exports to Japan fell from $10.3 million in 1998 to $4.6 million last year, according to statistics from the Foreign Trade Zone Division of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

A key question is when — or if — Japan will approve the transgenic rainbow variety or other second-generation transgenic papaya varieties.

“If Japanese consumers understand GMO and buy the GMO, we can survive,” said Toshihisa Aoki, president of Hawaiian Fresh Products Inc., Hilo.

IRRADIATION OPTION

Vapor heat treatment is used for all fruit bound for Japan and most shipped to the U.S. Some estimate that 10% to 15% of the state’s papayas are currently irradiated for shipment to the U.S., said Tom Tjerandsen of McClure & Tjerandsen, a San Francisco-based marketing firm.

In the past, as much as 50% of the state’s papayas had been irradiated, but occasional extended plant shutdown to replace parts over the years have caused some marketers to push more fruit to vapor heat treatment.

Aoki, president of Hawaiian Fresh, said he doesn’t believe Japan will ever accept irradiation treatment of papayas, in part because the treatment sometimes doesn’t completely kill fruit fly larvae. Some “wigglers” remain in the fruit — even though the irradiation causes the pests to be infertile and incapable of posing a threat to Japan’s growers.