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Now In Stores: Genetically Engineered Papaya

GMO papaya, both fresh and as juice, threatens Hawaiian organics.

GMO PapayasIt wasn’t so many years ago that papayas were a novelty in our grocery market’s produce department. Markets now have papayas in abundance and priced to move. What’s the difference between now and then? Why it’s the GMO papaya.

Unless it’s labeled organic, the Hawaiian papaya you buy for your family is most likely from a genetically engineered tree.

Papayas are an excellent example of the good intention-bad result history of GMO development, really a smaller part of the GMO struggle when compared to the bad intention- bad result (think Monsanto) history of development. Papayas also offer a lesson in the issue’s complexity with all the various reasons that make GMOs, even those developed with the best intentions, a multi-faceted problem.

Most genetic engineering isn’t done for the benefit of consumers. It’s done for reasons that benefit growers and the manufacturers of GMO products (Monsanto sells it GMO soy bean seed and the Roundup herbicide that’s sprayed on it, the old Flavr-Savr tomato may have tasted awful but it didn’t bruise during shipping).

Arguing only one side of a many-sided issue allows GMO proponents to ignore broader environmental, economic, and human health aspects of the controversy.

Since 1998, the “Rainbow” papaya has been genetically engineered to resist a fungus that was killing trees in Hawaii and other papaya growing regions. The GE tree wasn’t developed by Monsanto or some other big agri-chemical conglomerate. It was made by Hawaiian-born plant pathologist Dennis Gonsalves. It reversed a trend that saw 80 percent of the trees on Gonsalves’ father’s farm dead, according to this article at Modern Farmer.

The return of the papaya has been held up as a success story by GMO supporters. A dying industry was saved. But another was threatened.

Studies have shown the GE papaya trees cross-pollinating with both organic and other non-GMO papaya. One Hawaiian State Senator claimed that Hawaiian organic papaya growers had thrown in the towel. Loss of overseas markets, like Japan, cut into sales and surpluses in the GMO market have caused fruit to go unpicked.

As more non-GMO trees are affected by the genetically modified papaya, the more the risks to human health increase.

Sure, there may be no evidence that genetically engineered papayas cause health problems. But wouldn’t it be wise to actually see if the two most likely threats — increase in allergens and antibiotic resistance — might be present? Wouldn’t that be prudent?

Rather than do everything we can to accommodate corporations and big agriculture, wouldn’t it be better to first prove that genetically modified papaya, and all other GMO crops, have no adverse health affects, won’t damage the genetics of other crops, and won’t increase environmental damage?

Hawaii has long been a battle ground in local control over GMO issues. Papayas have been excluded from some Hawaiian GMO bans and the issue there is highly charged. In the end, we’ll guess that consumers and economics — the returns on GMO papaya minus the loss in traditional and organic papaya sales — will determine the future of Hawaiian papayas. It might start when shoppers realize that 50 to 80% of all Hawaiian papaya are GMO and a lot of those papayas end up in juice. Time to start checking labels and asking questions.

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Eric Vinje founded Planet Natural with his father Wayne in 1991, originally running it as a grasshopper bait mail-order business out of a garage.

Eric is now retired, but is still a renowned gardener known for his expertise in composting, organic gardening and pest control, utilizing pesticide-free options, such as beneficial insects.

Eric believes when you do something good for the environment, the effects will benefit generations to come.

2 Responses to “Now In Stores: Genetically Engineered Papaya”

  1. O.Z. on August 16th, 2019 at 8:56 pm #

    GMO papayas have nothing to do with allergy or antibiotic resistance. That is simple biology. Surely I agree with testing products, but once they are shown to be safe within reasonably bounds, they should not be forbidden.

  2. K O on January 11th, 2020 at 9:04 am #

    I’m tempted to agree with O.Z., because a type of genetic modification (deliberate hybridization and deliberate selection of beneficial random natural mutations) has been happening ever since humans learned to farm, but I have a few gnawing doubts. One is whether or not “simple biology” can determine whether or not there is any risk of allergies from a modified plant, whether deliberately engineered in a lab or by deliberate hybridization or random mutation of plants in someone’s back garden. My (admittedly poor) understanding of both biology and allergies is that allergies are rarely simple. “Natural” changes to DNA of some plants have in the past allowed the evolution of toxic plants into edible plants, so why can’t the reverse happen in a lab experiment? Another concern is that putting virus DNA into plant DNA seems to so much greater a change than the tiny changes to plant DNA alone that randomly occur in a natural mutation. My other doubt is who decides what is “reasonable bounds”. It seems mostly to be the people who stand to benefit most are the people who decide this, and they usually have enough financial and political clout to take on organizations that come up with a different opinion, such as the FDA, and win . The current prescription opioid problem in the USA is, I believe, a classic example of this. Tobacco was another. That industry said it’s products were not harmful and they had the financial muscle to scare off anyone who suggested otherwise. Monsanto’s tactics in threatening anyone who disagrees with them with an army of lawyers, makes me doubt they are being honest when they say there’s nothing wrong with GMO, but there remains a possibility that they are right.