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GM papayas a lesson in biotech benefits: Hawaii’s biotech papayas teach lesson

A new supply of fresh papayas from Hawaii will reach grocery-store shelves in Japan this year and consumers have biotechnology to thank for it.

The first “Rainbow” papayas–genetically modified to withstand the deadly ringspot virus—are now on sale. They are the first GM food Japan has approved for commercial release.

It represents an important step for a country that has resisted a technology that is now conventional in North and South America and increasingly common in Africa and Asia.

The story of how cutting-edge agriculture defeated disease and saved Hawaiian papayas shows that we have much to gain from GM crops, even as professional protestors peddle scientific ignorance to frighten the public about this essential food source. The rest of the United States may want to pay attention, as voters in California and legislators in more than a dozen states consider burdensome food-labeling laws.

In the middle of the 20th century, as Hawaiian papaya farmers started to enjoy commercial success, the ringspot virus appeared almost out of nowhere to threaten our livelihood. For a while, we were able to contain its spread by destroying infected papaya trees. Yet this was a drastic remedy. One year, I had to cut down half my orchard.

By the 1990s, however, it was almost pointless for Hawaiian farmers to raise papayas. The risk of crop failure was too high. I stopped growing the fruit and so did most of my neighbors.

Meanwhile, scientists worked on the problem. Dennis Gonsalves, then of Cornell University, learned how to take a piece of the ringspot virus and use it to “inoculate” trees, much as vaccines can improve immunity against diseases in people. In 1998, we started to sell GM papayas, which are just as healthy and delicious as the ones they replaced.

This simple innovation saved Hawaiian papayas. The ringspot virus is still out there, ready to wreak havoc–but it won’t infect any of the trees that descend from the innovation of Gonsalves.

(For more, see: US and Europe approach biotech crop crossroads)

We had beaten back a threat from nature, but now a manmade problem presented itself. Japan was our most important export market and its government refused to allow the importation of GM papayas. In 1996, Hawaiian farmers sold more than $15 million in papayas to Japan. By 2010, this figure had dropped to about $1 million.

The Japanese had nothing to worry about: GM papayas underwent strict regulatory testing in the United States. In fairness, however, biotech food was still a new phenomenon. The Japanese were simply exercising caution. As time passed, however, it became clear that they were cautious to a fault, as the arguments against GM food collapsed in the face of scientific data and consumer acceptance.

Today, the vast majority of the corn and soybeans raised in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and the United States are genetically modified to fight off weeds and pests. Around the world, millions of farmers have planted and harvested more than 3 billion acres of GM crops. Every day, billions of people eat safe food with biotech ingredients.

Yet pockets of resistance remain. Europeans remain deeply skeptical of GM food. In India, politicians have failed to approve GM brinjal (eggplant), even though its commercialization would improve the food security of a nation that struggles to feed its surging population.

In the United States, where biotech food is well accepted, activists crusade against it. They demand labels for GM food, but their real agenda is to sow confusion, raise anxieties, and, in the case of organic-food groups that are putting money behind these initiatives, give themselves a competitive advantage.

In Japan, GM papayas carry labels. The response of consumers will tell us a lot. Will they choose to buy Hawaiian papayas, which are some of the best on the planet, and return market share to the growers who enjoyed it a generation ago? Or will they avoid these nutritious fruits because the labels scare them away?

The world is watching. Meanwhile, it’s hard to ignore the obvious advantages of biotechnology: It saved my farm on Oahu, expanded trade opportunities for Hawaii, and improved consumer choice in Japan. We should hope it spreads everywhere.

Ken Kamiya has grown papaya in Hawaii for almost 40 years.  The “Kamiya” papaya is named in recognition of his work in the industry. Mr. Kamiya is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network.

Jun. 15, 2012

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