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Controversy rains on GMO crops

(Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Julie Grass, Ka Leo Associate News Editor, 10/12/04:
After the papaya ringspot virus threatened to destroy Hawai'i's papaya industry when it first appeared in 1992, genetically engineered papayas were released in 1998 as an attempt to stop the potentially-devastating virus.

The release of genetically-modified products has sparked controversy between organic farmers and those who opted to use genetically-modified seeds to save their crops.

Scientists, some at the University of Hawai'i, genetically engineered the "Rainbow" and "Sunup" papaya varieties to be resistant to the virus.

Ania Wieczorek, biotechnology education specialist at UH's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, said the papaya was created by the university for local farmers to solve the local problem.

"If not for GM papaya, papaya would not be grown commercially in Hawai'i today because the virus was so severe," Wieczorek said.

Although the genetically-engineered papayas were adopted by some papaya farmers, many organic papaya farmers remain concerned that their organic crops might get contaminated by genetically-engineered papayas.

If contaminated, their fruits would not be able to be sold under the organic label.

An organic food excludes anything "genetically engineered," according to the United States Department of Agriculture. To be classified as "genetically engineered," at least one gene from an organism is intentionally introduced into another organism, usually of a different species. This is done to improve the agricultural quality and value of the crop.

However, some organic farmers' non-GMO crops are being cross pollinated with GMO pollen and their crops are being genetically contaminated without their knowledge.

Melanie Bondera, an organic farmer in Kona and member of the Hawai'i Genetic Engineering Action Network, said organic farmers who are caught selling genetically-engineered products may lose their market and organic certification.

"If GMO is found on your land, you can be decertified," said Bondera.

CTAHR Plant Pathologist Stephen Ferrara defends the genetic engineering of papaya seeds, saying the procedure has clearly saved the papaya industry.

"We were almost too late," he said. "If we were two years later, the industry would have been lost."

"The virus limited production of papaya for many years," said Dennis Gonsalves, Director of the USDA Pacific Basin Agriculture Research Center. "(We) tried to get resistance naturally but did not succeed."

The ringspot virus is transmitted by insects and can be difficult to control. Once a plant is infected with the virus, it will never recover. Symptoms appear about three weeks after infection. They include the death of young seedlings that will never grow to produce fruit and the yellowing of leaves in older trees. The older trees will produce increasingly smaller fruits and eventually die.

According to press releases, Toivo Lahti, an organic farmer on the Big Island, said he found GMO contamination in his family's 170-tree organic papaya orchard.

"We found that I had unknowingly planted a single GMO seed in the middle of the orchard," he said. "The pollen from this tree contaminated and made suspect all the papayas on the farm. We cut them all down and lost our seed source and thousands of dollars."

Various seed samples were sent for testing at Genetic ID, one of the world's leading scientific laboratories for genetic testing, where seeds from organic farms were confirmed to be genetically engineered.

Seeds from a package of "Solo Waimanalo," a non-GMO seed analyzed by Genetic ID, also tested positive for GMO contamination. The seeds were purchased from UH.

"Now we know that UH is also selling contaminated papaya seeds, so even if farmers buy non-GMO seeds from the university, they could still be planting the genetically-engineered tree," Lahti said. "Unless immediate steps are taken to prevent the spread and takeover of our healthy native papayas, the GMO papaya will destroy non-GMO farmers' ability to produce successful crops."

Richard Manshardt, a professor at UH's Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences department who helped create the GM papaya, said "varietal cross-contamination in UH seeds is a serious concern."

"Not because there is any health risks known to be connected with GMO technology, but because the contents of seed packets should match what is on the label," Manshardt said. "If someone wants to avoid transgenic papayas they should be able to do so by choosing non-transgenic cultivars."

But Manshardt said the low level of varietal mixing found in the 'Waimanalo' papaya seed, which was between 1/100 and 1/1000 seeds, is within acceptable rates for certified seeds of many crops.

"The fact that the contaminating variety is genetically engineered is irrelevant except to organic producers," Manshardt said. "At this low level of out-crossing, I don't think CTAHR or ADSC have anything to be ashamed of, but we will want to do what we can to minimize it."

Manshardt also said it is possible to safely cultivate organic and GMO crops as long as neighboring growers communicate with each other.

"The bottom line seems to be that there is no technical barrier to the coexistence of organic and transgenic crops, as long as growers are willing to cooperate," he said.

Manshardt said that, according to experiments, separating GM fields from non-GMO fields by a quarter mile is enough to block contamination.

But Bondera disagreed and said: "I believe coexistence is not possible in the chaotic, natural world we live in. We can't control the wind, birds or pollen," she said. "The problem with GMO papaya contamination show us that there are too many unanswered questions about agricultural biotech to be releasing new experimental genetically-engineered organisms into our environment."

GMO Regulation

The United States has used genetic engineering since 1994 when the first genetically engineered crop was released for commercial production, the FlavrSavr tomato.

Before the GMO papaya was commercialized in May 1998, it went through a "complicated review process," according to Ferreira. The review included seven years of testing.

"These crops don't happen overnight," Wieczorek said. "The time you start working on the crop that you are interested in improving, from the time it is released, is about 10 years."

The Food and Drug Administration, the USDA, and the Environmental Protection Agency all have to check if the crop is safe for human consumption and for the environment, according to Wieczorek. If the agencies approve it, the crop becomes deregulated.

"When a crop is deregulated it is deemed safe," said Gonsalves. After deregulation, crops do not have to be tested under controlled conditions and can be sold in stores.

Gonsalves said testing "shows that the papaya was like any other papaya. The vitamin levels are the same."

The EPA considers genetically engineering to be a type of pesticide because it regulates a virus.

Although GM papayas have been deregulated, many organic farmers remain concerned that their crops could be contaminated.

"GMO-Free Hawai'i is pointing its finger at UH to cleanup contamination," Bondera said. "They released the seeds without proper control, did not protect the seed site and never educated the public about the seeds."

However, Ferreira said cleaning up the contamination is not necessarily an issue for the university.

"The seeds are completely legal to plant anywhere. We have no control over how they are used," he said. "The question should be, how can organic and non-organic farmers do what they want and do what is legal. The university should be a part of that discussion."

Although papayas can be deregulated in the United States, the same is not true in Japan, which made up 40 percent of the market for Hawaiian papayas before GM papayas were first released. Some of that export has been lost due to GM papayas, according to GMO Free Hawai'i.

According to Gonsalves, Japan has a zero tolerance policy for GM crops. The Japanese government, he said, tests crops for genetic engineering and the papayas do not leave the port until testing is completed.

Additional testing is being done in the United States to persuade the Japanese market to accept GM papaya. Meanwhile, non-GMO farmers from the Big Island are still shipping their papayas to Japan.

"If it is true that there is such big contamination, these farmers would never be able to ship to Japan," said Wieczorek.

Under federal law, genetically-engineered foods do not have to be labeled in grocery stores. Wieczorek said the FDA only labels foods that could impact a person's health.

"Consumers should take responsibility and educate themselves," she said. "If people do not want to eat genetically engineered crops, you have to buy organic."

Seventy percent of foods on supermarket shelves have traces of genetic engineering, Wieczorek said.

The university also is involved in projects surrounding the genetic engineering of other crops. According to Manshardt, there is work being done on building the virus resistance of pineapple, bananas, citrus work and coffee plants.

Bondera said, "The problems with GMO contamination show us that there are too many unanswered questions about agricultural biotech to be releasing new experimental genetically engineered organisms into our environment."