by Rob Kay
If you want to get into an argument, or possibly a fistfight, try taking a pro-GMO stance the next time you get together with friends or family. There seems to be no issue quite as contentious as genetically modified foods, aka GMOs.
The conventional wisdom, at least among a certain demographic in Hawaii, is that is that genetic modification of food is evil–something akin to devil worship or pedophilia.
I suspect most readers aren’t aware that one of the most successful GMO products available in your grocery store was developed for Hawaii farmers. If you weren’t aware of this, it’s time to acquaint yourself with the godfather of Hawaii’s GMO papaya, Dennis Gonsalves.
Credit Gonsalves, a brilliant scientist hailing from Kohala, with saving this crop.
Presently Hawaii’s papaya growers produce about 28 million pounds per year with a value of $20 million to $26 million. The size of the crop and its importance to local farmers are readily visible if you visit the Big Island. As you pass the farms, you’ll see rows and rows of healthy trees.
Unfortunately this wasn’t always the scenario.
In the 1950s on Oahu, and in the early 1990s on Hawaii island, the papaya crop was hammered with the notorious ringspot virus. This malady decimated papaya plantations and nearly wiped out the industry.
We were lucky Gonsalves, a plant pathologist trained at the University of Hawaii-Hilo and Cornell, was there to save the day. The Big Island native was well aware of Hawaii’s vulnerability to this pathogen and with great prescience, teamed up with Cornell scientists to create genetically modified papaya resistant to the ringspot virus.
He did so by inserting a snippet of viral DNA into the papaya genome.
However, producing a genetically modified fruit was only the first step in an onerous process. He still had to get approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration. This entailed a series of studies to ascertain whether the papayas were both safe to consume and safe for the environment.
By 1997 all three agencies approved the GMO papaya, and the next year it was planted on the Big Island.
And not a moment too soon. By 1998, production was down by around 50 percent.
Gonsalves’ GMO papaya didn’t just revitalize the crop, it saved the papaya industry in Hawaii.
Of course some might argue that this Frankenfruit is not safe. However, they would be wrong.
According to Lorie Farrell, a spokeswoman for the Big Island-based Hawaii Farmers & Ranchers United, the papaya had to pass stringent tests before USDA approval. Following approval in this country, the industry organization also successfully navigated the Japanese system, which took 12 years and the imprimatur of more than 100 ministries. (This included feeding and pollination studies).
Farrell stated that 6.3 billion pounds of papaya have been consumed since the rainbow papaya was deregulated, and there have been no health issues attributed to the GMO papaya.
She also stated that there had not been a single documented case where a certified organic papaya farmer had lost certification due to contamination or cross-fertilization of a GMO papaya with non-GMO plants.
The next time you dig into a Rainbow papaya, chances are it will be of the GMO ilk. Think of Dennis Gonsalves and don’t lose sleep over any safety concerns. There are plenty of other things to worry about.
Rob Kay has written about technology and life sciences for over 20 years. His columns have appeared in Pacific Business News, the Honolulu Star Bulletin and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.