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Hawaiian State Legislature’s Selective Memory toward Papaya Saving Science

September 19, 2013
In recent years, the papaya fruit has become a leading export for the island of Hawaii with it being the island’s second-largest fruit crop with an estimated value of $18 million.  The fruit has also served as a key source of Vitamins A and C for native Hawaiians, which would otherwise be difficult and expensive for them to obtain elsewhere.  This was not always the case for Hawaiian agriculture, especially as it relates to this lucrative commodity.  In the early 1990s, Hawaii was severely hit with what is known as the papaya ringspot virus, an incurable disease that ruins fruit and upon infection can eradicate mass groves of trees instantly.  With one of their leading exports rapidly waning, farmers were struggling to find new methods that would revamp cultivation of the papaya fruit while successfully combating off the virus.  These efforts became increasingly futile attempts to escape the spreading disease as many Hawaiians watched the papaya industry quickly decline off the island.

“Then the tool of biotechnology saved us,” Ken Kamiya, member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network and longtime Hawaiian papaya farmer, recalls his personal experience of the virus outbreak.  “A scientist named Dennis Gonsalves figured out an ingenious way to make our papayas resist the ringspot virus. He inserted a piece of the virus’s own genes into papayas, effectively inoculating our plants. Thanks to genetic modification, papaya farmers were able to grow papayas again. Today our small industry has recovered and virtually all of the papayas grown in Hawaii are GM crops.”

Ken’s story is great for many reasons, but primarily it provides a sound example of a how a GMO crop not only helped save a local economy but also how it provided sustainability to the local farmers.  With GMO crops having such a successful past and promising future in the state of Hawaii, why would the government would be trying to suppress this technology?  Hawai’i County Bill 79 does just that by seeking to ban all genetically engineered crops and animals, except the current GMO papayas and any ornamental plant, while also adding numerous additional hurdles for existing crops and ongoing research.

According to Ken Kamiya, “advocates of Bill 79 claim that their ban exempts papayas. This is true only in a highly technical sense. The legislation doesn't outlaw GM papayas the way it outlaws other GM crops, but it imposes so many new restrictions on papayas that farming them will become impractical.  To make matters worse, Bill 79 casts doubt on a proven technology at a time when we’re trying to build an export market for papayas among Japanese consumers.”

Ken and farmers alike could potentially see enactment of the law as indication that “Hawaiian leaders don’t have confidence in the food Hawaiian farmers are trying to sell overseas.”  Farmers whose living has been secured and saved as a result in advances in ag biotech.

To read Ken’s entire editorial as it ran in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser click here.  To read the current draft Bill 79 go here or visit the Hawai’i County website: