GMO Papayas are about People

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My dorky “OMG It’s Dennis Gonsalves!” shot

Last August, I was invited to speak about genetically engineered crops at a GMO Summit organized by the Hawai’i Crop Improvement Association. The event was held on the big island of Hawai’i, known for its enormous volcanoes, long beaches, and coffee and papaya farms. The HCIA flew me in to speak (honorarium declined), I stayed at people’s houses, and while I was in the state I knew I really wanted to see a papaya farm and to meet Dr. Dennis Gonsalves, who developed the genetically engineered ringspot virus-resistant papayas known as SunUp and Rainbow. So I sent him an email, and he was delighted to show me around, and even took me to his home to cook with his papayas!

Early on a Sunday morning, I met Dennis on the side of the road in Puna. My host Eric was driving, and Jon Entine and his host Judi met us at the same intersection. Not far away, protesters were walking with signs objecting to hydrothermal power. I had only seen pictures of Dennis before today, so I did not know what to expect. I had seen his picture in a wall of famous agricultural scientists in the Chicago Museum of Science & Industry, but now here he was! He was warm and friendly, and I soon learned the real meaning of Aloha. In Hawai’i, Aloha not only means hello and goodbye, but a state of mind and a way of life defined by openness and welcoming. In Hawai’i, they value maintaining an air of friendship and respect even when disagreeing on political issues (and some of the debates over GMOs reflect a recent divergence from this value). In Dennis, I had met the highest concentration of Aloha yet on the entire trip. If he were a plant, his leaves and roots exuded Aloha into the surrounding air and soil. It was infectious.

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Dennis Gonsalves and a young stand of Rainbow papayas, Mauna Kea in the background

We drove down the road, and entered a farm. Macadamia nut trees and papayas lined the side of the road, and we parked beside a large metal shed. We got out and stepped inside the airy shed, where we met Alberto Belmes, the owner of the farm. Alberto, a Filipino, was one of the many farmers who were hit hard by the spread of the papaya ringspot virus in the 1990s. In 1992, Dr. Gonsalves was starting a field test of papayas genetically engineered to resist this virus on the island of Oahu and the same year the disease was discovered in Puna on the big island.

The Hawaii Department of Agriculture went into emergency mode, and any trees with the virus were slashed, burned and destroyed to try to limit its spread. Any infected trees left standing could provide a reservoir for fresh viruses that would be spread by the aphids that sucked on the plants. It got so bad that some even proposed eradicating every papaya from the area for a few years. Even then, it couldn’t promise to remove the virus from the island permanently, as it could also infect cucurbits such as watermelons and cucumbers. Once it spread, it was there to stay. The virus knew no politics, nor did it care how you labeled yourself as a farmer.

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Devastation in Puna

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Frank finds virus-infected papayas in Thailand

When the virus hit Alberto’s farm, he had taken out a loan to expand his operation. His trees succumbed like everyone else’s, and he was at risk of losing everything. His experience was typical, as virus-infected trees produced poor yields of substandard fruit and farmers were abandoning plots of diseased trees, some going out of business. Gonsalves and his team needed to know if their transgenic papaya could help, so they got a permit from the USDA to conduct a field trial in Puna. A few years later, as the virus continued to spread throughout the region, there was a single plot in the middle of it that was unaffected. The field trial consisted of a rectangle of the new genetically engineered trees, and you would not think that the ringspot virus had hit the area if it weren’t for the infected, stunted, and dying non-GMO papaya trees that surrounded them. Gonsalves took tours of farmers and others to see the trial and the achievement.

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Alberto and Dennis choose some papayas to take home

Alberto was one of the first farmers who got access to the genetically engineered papaya seeds when they were released in 1998. there were not enough seeds to meet the demand in the first year, so they first gave the seeds to the farmers who were hit hardest by the disease, and the remainder were handed out by a lottery.

Before we left Alberto’s farm, Dennis collected a box of green and ripe papayas to take to his house for us to cook with in the afternoon. I rode with Dennis in his truck, and heard more about why the papaya was the success story that it was. It took dedication.

It’s one thing to make a discovery and support your hypothesis, he said, “But if you want to help the farmers – you have to take it through the Red Zone and get it in the hands of the farmers!” At the time, the football analogy was lost on me (not being much of a sports fan), but his emphatic enunciation repeated endlessly in my mind. He described how going from a successful field trial to the farmer’s fields was no easy task. Day and night, his team filled out endless regulatory paperwork, while raising funds to produce the seeds that would be given out to the farmers for free. They were running against a deadline marked by the progression of dead papaya trees, and made it just in time in 1998.

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Alberto Belmes with his crates of genetically engineered Rainbow papayas

The result of this effort was as clear then as it is today. Denis Gonsalves and his team anticipated the vulnerability of the Hawai’ian papaya to the ringspot virus, and using the new tool of genetic engineering, they developed and tested a tree that resisted the disease. Today, about 80% of the papayas grown in Hawai’i are genetically engineered, and they are grown side-by-side with non-genetically engineered papayas destined for markets that are still sensitive to the GMO issue. Chances are, if you buy one in a store on the mainland, it will be a GMO, and it will be the Rainbow papaya.

In the debate over genetically engineered crops, it is often presented as a conflict between a faceless corporation and a small group of people. Instead, for the papaya, it was a small group of people who triumphed over a faceless plant disease in an effort to help people – the people whose livelihoods, diets, and cultural traditions depend on the papaya. The story of the GMO papaya is a story about people.

Frank-Kick-FBprofileI hope you will consider helping us bring the story of the papaya to life in our Kickstarter campaign, with only hours left to go, we are close to making this possible! Although the Kickstarter will be over soon, I will continue to write about different aspects of the science, food culture, and politics of the papayas in Hawai’i. And yes, you will get to find out what recipes we made out of genetically engineered papayas!

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Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He currently works as a public research geneticist in Madison, WI. His favorite produce might just be squash.


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6 comments to GMO Papayas are about People

  • Eric Bjerregaard

    Well golly gee whiz Karl. That’s not what they said on the greenpeace site. It amazes me what are told by the antis. 2 questions. Does the plant still act as a host that could supply aphids with fresh virus? Or does the plant not get the virus. They are considering a gmo papaya for Florida and sent us a survey. But didn’t give us enough info to answer intelligently.

    • The plant doesn’t get the virus, although the aphids will still be present, they just won’t be carrying it if they can’t feed off any infected plants.

      Yeah, I do like how Greenpeace has this packet titled ‘The Failure of GE Papaya in Hawai’i.’ They sure can stand steadfast in the fact of all facts, I’ll give them that much. Reminds me of that one Onion article titled ‘True Courage Is Knowing You’re Wrong But Refusing To Admit It.’

  • Eric Bjerregaard

    Thanks Greg, I live near Gainesville and get small crops because of greenhouses. No prsv here yet. Was disturbed to see that it is hosted by cucurbits, though. Hope it doesn’t get here because in spite of the presence of U.F. this is an anti stronghold. I even know some that avoid the subject because of fear of reactions if the truth is told. I’m not that smart. Perhaps I’m just stubborn or been eating to many onions.

  • Robert Wagerr

    Nice synopsis Karl

  • TheOldTechnite

    I wish Hawaiian Papayas were available on the East Coast of the US. I’ve been looking for them but i only see papayas from Mexico and Central America.

  • Harold Keyser

    Great story and hope it is seen by many. Dennis is an affable and warm person, a native Hawaiian raised on a sugar plantation in Kohala, who went on to become an internationally recognized plant pathologist, and through top notch research led a team that put Hawaii’s papaya growers back in business.

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