Japan approves sale of Hawaii's genetically modified papayas

The genetically modified Rainbow papaya has finally been approved for shipment to Japan. Hawaii papaya farmers hope this announcement will help their industry grow. 80% of the state's papaya crop is resistant to the ringspot virus through genetic engineering.

The "Taste of Ag" event on Wednesday night showcased all kinds of products from Hawaii's agricultural industry. One of the farms highlighted, Kamiya Gold, grows genetically modified papayas. After the ringspot virus devastated his plants, Kenneth Kamiya crossed his papaya with the genetically engineered "Rainbow" to make his crop resistant to the disease.

"It saved the whole industry because that allowed everybody to grow papaya. Big Island was wiped out," said Kamiya.

Rainbow papayas have been sold in Hawaii since 1998. Canada gave its approval for import in 2003. Now, after more than a decade of waiting, commercial shipments are allowed in Japan.

"They're strict, but they're fair. What they did was they wanted more information on the scientific end of this," explained Loren Mochida of the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association.

Japan used to be a major market for locally-grown papayas. Annual sales reached $15 million in 1996, but that dropped to $1 million by 2010 as growers waited for the Japanese government to approve imports of Rainbow papayas.

"Whereas Hawaii had the market before the virus came in, now Hawaii has to establish the market, this time with the Rainbow papaya," said Dennis Gonsalves of the USDA Pacific Basin Agriculture Research Center.

Gonsalves led the research team that created the Rainbow papaya.

"It took us a long time, a lot of scientific work, but now it's in the door, so I think it's going to be the skill of Hawaii as a whole, the skill of the Hawaii papaya industry, how they can market," said Gonsalves.

The genetically modified fruit is controversial. Critics are worried about ecological threats. They're concerned about the development of new and more potent diseases, and the possibility that Rainbow plants could contaminate organic papaya trees nearby with genetically modified pollen.

Last July, vandals destroyed thousands of papaya trees on three farms in Puna. The case is still unsolved, and police are looking into the possibility that the crime is GMO-related.

"Millions of pounds have been consumed. This papaya is the most thoroughly analyzed fruit in the world," said Gonsalves. "I'm convinced it's safe."

A test shipment of Rainbow papayas was sent to Costco stores in Japan last month. The next batch will likely be shipped later this month or in February. The fruit will also be promoted at two food shows in the Japan.


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