Scientists square off over how safe Hawaii’s genetically modified papaya is for consumers.
By Alan D. McNarie
Hawai’i Island Journal
March 31, 2003
“Would it surprise you to know that saving a crop from a virus helped save a community from disaster?” began a full page ad in the National Geographic last year. The ad was about Hawaii’s papaya crop, which allegedly was “saved” by a genetically modified papaya containing a transplanted protein from the Papaya Ringspot Virus.
“This healthier plant not only kept Hawaiian farming communities in business, it also resulted in an increase in papaya production. And it’s just one example of how crops enhanced by plant biotechnology could one day help feed an ever-increasing world population,” claimed the ad, paid for by the Council for Biotechnology Information.
Dennis Gonsalves, who headed the team that created the genetically modified papayas, recently received the prestigious Alexander Von Humboldt Award for Agriculture for his role in having “saved the $47 million Hawaiian papaya industry from ruin by the ringspot virus,” according to a Cornell press release. He has been named to head the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center, whose $18 million “Phase 1” buildings are scheduled for groundbreaking at the UH-Hilo Research Park in December.
But in lower Puna, the heart of the state’s papaya industry, some farmers aren’t so sure that the patient has been “saved” just yet.
Canada recently opened its market to genetically modified papayas, but much of the world, including the lucrative Japan market, still remains closed to them. Farmers complain about depressed prices for the genetically modified fruit. Many have gone out of business or switched to other crops. And while the two commercially available genetically modified varieties, “SunUp” and “Rainbow,” have helped control the virus, farmers have found themselves fighting a new plague, papaya blackspot fungus, to which the genetically altered varieties appear more susceptible than the most common “natural” papaya. And a new study has raised questions about whether the altered genes in the new papayas could be allergenic to humans.
The County of Hawai’i website states that this island, which produces 96 percent of the state’s papaya, currently grows only $20 million worth of the fruit annually – well under half of the “47 million-dollar industry” claimed in the Cornell press release. According to Hawai’i Papaya Industry Association President Delan Perry, ” I think we’re expecting a little less than 40 million pounds this year. The actual production peak was in the early 80s, about 70 million. In the early 90s, prior to the virus, it was around 50 million pounds.”
So at best, so far, Gonsalves and his team can only claim to have saved a fraction of the papaya industry.
The industry also faces complaints about spray drift and unsafe practices from some neighbors who frankly wish that it had died. A rapidly growing counter-movement is advocating that the papaya industry stop acting so – well, industrial.
Miracles and Monsters
Gene-spliced crops are such a new development that there isn’t even a commonly agreed upon name for them yet. Sometimes they’re called “genetically engineered (GE) or “genetically modified” (GM). Some agronomists who work with them prefer the term “transgenic.” But all such crops have one thing in common: genes from another organism have been artificially transplanted into their DNA.
The result is a revolution potentially as powerful as the invention of the printing press or of the computer network. Like those earlier revolutions, this one deals with accessing, handling and transmitting information. But the transgenic revolution handles information at perhaps its most profound level for life on earth: the information contained in a creature’s cells, which define its very functioning and identity. Like any powerful tool, gene splicing has the potential for both enormous good and great harm. It can prevent diseases and birth defects, increase crop yields and generate enormous wealth. It could also create literal monsters, spread life-threatening allergies, and place control of the world’s food supply in the hands of a few powerful corporations, through patent ownership of that food supply’s genes.
Last February, Kona played host to two different meetings on the topic in successive weeks. The first, held in Kailua-Kona on Saturday, February 8, was organized and sponsored by the University of Hawaii-Manoa, which has developed a huge stake in the future of genetic technology: not only did it help develop the transgenic papaya; its researchers also hold basic patents on cloning techniques. A week later, local activists held their own three-day workshop to organize opposition to the rapid spread of the technology. In the weeks that followed, at least two fast-growing anti-GE groups have sprung up on the island: the Hawaii Genetic Engineering Action Network (HI GEAN), centered in South Kona but with island-wide membership, and an as-yet-unnamed Puna community forum, which meets weekly to discuss GE and related topics at an organic farm near Kalapana.
The two sides, pro and anti, are not entirely aloof from each other. When Richard Manshardt, one of the developers of the transgenic papaya, came to Kona for the UH conference, he stayed afterward at the home of HI GEAN activist Nancy Redfeather. He also gave HI GEAN some samples of a new test that would allow farmers to check on whether their papayas contained genetically modified materials or not.
In doing so, he may have unwittingly helped galvanize an anti-GE movement in Puna. So far, two papaya growers have discovered that plants they thought were organic were actually transgenic.
A Seed in the Wrong Place…
One of those farmers was John Caverly.
“This is what I’ve done all my life,” said Caverly a week after the news, standing on his lush farm in lower Puna. “I’ve worked the land. I’ve never used chemicals.”
The farm had a very different look from the huge, regimented squares of papaya that appeared on most plantations. The papaya here grew in smaller patches, separated by groves of mangos and interspersed with patches of lettuce, coconuts, citrus and rolennia (a relative of custard apple and soursop), so that any pests or infections could not spread as easily from tree to tree as they did in large, single-crop fields.
Caverly said he had brought some of his papayas to a potluck community meeting where HIGEAN members gave a presentation, and volunteered a fruit for the gene test, little suspecting the results.
Caverly believed the genetic contamination may have come from some papayas that his partner had bought at a farmer’s market, before the Federal Government’s strict new rules governing organic certification had gone into effect. The trees grown from that seed were cut down after developing a fungal disease called phytophthera. But some of the pollen from those trees may have drifted to other trees on the farm.
Under strict new federal regulations, transgenic crops cannot be labeled organic. To make sure the GM strain is eradicated, Caverly said, the farm would be cutting down all its producing papaya trees, destroying thousands of seedlings, and starting anew with non-GMO seed obtained from the University of Hawai’i, and planting them in a different field.
“I’m not into getting into a confrontation with those big chemical companies…” he mused. Instead, he advocated a non-confrontational approach: “I think it’s better to try to correct what we’re doing, work with the community, and educate people so that we hopefully have some control over our environment to protect our children and our grandchildren.”
The Fungus Among Us
Ironically, susceptibility to phytophthera and other fungal diseases may be one indicator that papayas are genetically modified. UH researchers knew the new SunUp and Rainbow strains were more susceptible to phytophthera when they released the new seed to the public. UH Agronomist Steve Ferreira told the Journal about that susceptibility in April of 2001.
“It’s a serious problem,” he admitted, then. “Before the virus broke out, it was probably the most serious fungal disease problem for papaya….In fact, we’re working on a transgenic solution for phytophthera, but that’s probably a few years away.”
Since their widespread introduction, the new varieties have been afflicted with a new plague: blackspot fungus, forcing farmers to spray their field frequently with expensive and hazardous fungicides. Kapoho Solo, the most common variety of non-GM papaya, is highly vulnerable to ringspot virus, but fairly resistant to fungal infections.
“I know that Rainbow is probably a little more susceptible to phytophthora than is Kapoho Solo,” Richard Manshardt told the Journal. “The reason is that Rainbow is a hybrid. One of them [the parent plants] is Kapoho, the other is SunUp, which is genetically engineered, which is very susceptible to phytophthora.”
Why farmers got a fungus-vulnerable hybrid instead of a GM version of Kapoho Solo was a matter of chance.
Gene-splicing is not a matter of inserting new genes with a tiny scalpel at a precise point on a DNA chain. The virus resistant (but fungus-vulnerable) SunUp papaya was created with a device called a “gene gun,” which propels a metal disk toward a screen at roughly the speed of a rifle bullet. When the screen stops the disk, the disk releases a spray of one-micron-thick tungsten balls coated with DNA proteins. The tiny balls act like miniature shotgun pellets, penetrating the outer membranes of target plant cells to release the proteins, which may then attach to the DNA of the host cell.
The result is not an exact science. In any given cell, the new proteins may or may not attach, and once attached, may or may not activate in the way the scientists want. Scientists must rely on statistical probability that if they shoot enough cells, eventually one will turn out right.
“In this genetic engineering process, it frequently comes back to selection among hopefully a large number of genetically engineered individuals, some of which act the way you hope, if you’re lucky, and some of which don’t,” Manshardt told the Journal. “So you’re back to screening for some that behave the ways that you hope to have them behave.”
According to Manshardt, the UH-Cornell team simply didn’t get a working anti-viral Kapoho Solo cell. But the transplant did work in a variety called Sunset, which unfortunately was very susceptible to phytophthera. So the team cross-bred the transgenic Sunset, which they renamed SunUp, with Kapoho Solo to create Rainbow, which is more fungus resistant than SunUp but less resistant then Kapoho Solo.
“There are now Kapohos that are genetically engineered to resist the virus,” noted Manshardt, but added, “Those are not commercial yet. They’re still being tested.”
While farmers were worrying about the fungus in their fields, another worry was cropping up over a possible health risk for papaya consumers. The Institute for Science in Society, a London-based anti-GM organization, published a Web article entitled “GM Papaya Scandal,” by Joe Cummins, Professor Emeritus of Genetics at the University of Western Ontario. In it, Cummins alleged that a transplanted protein in GM papayas might provoke allergic reactions in humans, but that the Environmental Protection Agency had allowed them to be released without investigating that possibility.
“…As part of the approval process, potential allergens have to be identified before the crops are released commercially,” Cummins wrote. “But the GM papaya was approved despite a recent report showing that the papaya ringspot virus coat protein is a potential allergen because it contained a string of amino acids identical to a known allergen.”
Cummins cited a scientific paper by two Dutch biologists, Gijs A Kleter and Ad ACM Peijnenburg, who tested a number of proteins, including the ringspot virus coat protein in the transgenic papaya, and found that the proteins contained strings of up to six or seven amino acids – the chemical building blocks of proteins and genes – which matched those found in known allergens.
“The positive outcomes of this approach warrant further clinical testing for potential allergenicity,” concluded the two scientists. Cummins contacted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about Kleter and Peijnenburg’s findings.
“The EPA’s public information stated that coat protein of papaya ringspot virus and the genetic material necessary for its production had been granted “an exemption from the requirement of tolerance” in 1997, which essentially means it is exempt from safety assessment, based on the belief that the material was safe for consumption by humans and animals,” he reported.
The “exemption” Cummins referred to was a 1997 EPA regulation that “eliminates the need to establish a maximum permissible level for residues of Coat Proteins of Papaya Ringspot Virus and the genetic material necessary for its production.”
Both Manshardt and Cornell Prof. Dennis Gonsalves, who headed the team that created transgenic papaya, told the Journal that they argued for the exemption on the grounds that human beings were already eating ringspot virus coat proteins-in fact, that humans were eating the whole virus.
“It’s in vegetables such as squash and zucchini, and people eat those all the time. Whether people are getting sick from that, it certainly hasn’t come to anybody’s attention,” said Manshardt.
“At that time we had not compared amino acids and so forth,” admitted Gonsalves. But he noted, “When Hawai’i was in trouble in the 1990s, and all of Puna was infected, many of the papayas were eaten.”
He also noted scientific projects in Brazil and Taiwan, in which fruits were deliberately infected with weakened viruses, much as weakened viruses are sometimes used as human vaccines. In fact, he said, “I was involved in a project where we deliberately infected papaya with a mild strain of the virus. This was in the mid-1980s…. A farmer wanted to utilize the technology. So he utilized the techniques, and then sold the fruit on the market.”
But Gonsalves said no follow-up was done to see if any of the consumers who bought had suffered any ill effects.
The EPA accepted the argument that consumers were already eating plant viruses. But Japan hasn’t been as easy a sell. Gonsalves and others have been continuing research on the allergen question in order to meet Japan’s more exacting requirements.
“We followed the standard criteria that people use in checking for the possibility of allergens,” Gonsalves told the Journal. That criteria, he maintained, was to look for proteins with 35 percent of their amino acids in common with a known allergen, then to look for strings of eight or more amino acids that matched strings in the known allergen.
Manshardt believes the Dutch study is “pretty nebulous and not important. It should be checked out but it’s not a waving red flag. It’s not a sure sign of any allergenicity.”
Former Indiana University GE researcher Marti Crouch, disagrees. “In fact, very small changes in a protein can increase the allergenicity dramatically,” she wrote in an e-mail to the Journal “Some of the drugs made by genetic engineering, such as human insulin, are many times more likely to cause allergies, and it is thought that subtle differences in the sugars attached to them, or a single amino acid difference, may be responsible for the increase in allergies,” she said.
Who Owns the Food?
One factor motivating many anti-GMO activists is not safety, but a broader issue: who controls the world food supply?
“Genetically modified seed – you can’t save it. It’s against the law,” notes Redfeather. “Farmers or gardeners who use it would have to sign a technology agreement to lease this seed for the year.”
GM seed is patented. GM seed patent holders have sued a number of farmers in the U.S. and Canada – including one papaya farmer in Hawai’i – when GM genes were discovered in their fields. Some of the sued farmers have claimed that drifting pollen from nearby GM fields contaminated their plants. Redfeather points out that for thousands of years, farmers improved their crops, adapting them to local climates, soil conditions and pests, by saving seed from the best plants in each field and using that seed for the next year’s crop. The introduction of commercial hybrids has limited that practice, leading to the extinction of thousands of local crop varieties. Widespread GM crops, pollen drift and the threat of being sued over unlicensed genes could threaten traditional seed-saving even further.
The problem of pollen drift has organic farmers especially worried. Under the strict new U.S. law on the labeling of “organic” foods, no GM plant qualifies as organic. But GM plants and food products are not required to be labeled, and farmers have no way of knowing if the field next to them is growing GM crops.
Manshardt argues that there’s no pressing need to label GM crops just because they’re GM.
“…If the thing you put in there changes the character of the product – if it expresses something that was never in the product before, you have to label it,” he argues. “If there were, for instance, a 60 percent drop in Vitamin A or a 40 percent increase in Vitamin C, you would have to label that, if it were a significant deviation from papayas in general. So I think that the public’s being protected from things like that…[but] if it doesn’t deviate significantly from the unmodified papaya, then what are you telling people?
Manshardt says that the Cornell-UH team did conduct a preliminary test on pollen drift, in which fruit from non-GM fields adjacent to and 1/4 mile downwind from a 1-acre GM tract were examined for cross-pollination. 1000 seeds from 85 fruit were examined. No cross-pollination was found.
“That’s not definitive by any means, but it does give some indication that under commercial conditions, there isn’t going to be significant gene flow from transgenics to non-transgenics.”
But critics argue that the sample in Manshardt’s test was too minuscule to be significant. An acre of papaya can contain thousands of fruits, and each fruit can contain around 500 seeds. And a relatively small organic farm surrounded by GM papaya fields could face considerably more chance of contamination than the fields tested for drift from a one-acre test plot.
The tests conducted by HI GEAN have already yielded two positives for GM contamination of what were thought to be natural papayas: one in Puna and one in Kona.
Manshardt also argues that if an occasional case of pollen drift occurs, the fruit can still be sold as organic if the contamination was accidental. He cites a clause in the Preamble to the “Applicability” section USDA National Organic Program.
“As long as an organic operation has not used excluded methods and takes reasonable steps to avoid contact with the products of excluded methods as detailed in their approved organic system plan, the unintentional presence of products of excluded methods should not affect the status of an organic product or operation,” the Preamble states.
Eileen O’Hora-Weir of the Hawai’i Organic Farmer’s Association (HOFA) disagrees.
“The Preamble is not the law. It’s the explanation of the law,” she contends.
The actual regulations of the National Organic Program require that the organic farm protect and document its seed source, according to an “organic system plan” spelled out by an organic accrediting agency such as HOFA.
“Given the fact that we have genetic contamination of the papaya crop in Hawai’i, we require that the farmers document their seed source,” noted O’Hora-Weir. “If the papaya tested positive for GM genes, “the certifying agency would then conduct an investigation to determine the source of the contamination. If the source of contamination was not a result of actions taken by the producer, the producer would not lose his certification.”
But whether or not the farm would be allowed to sell the fruit,” she said, would be “a case by case call.”
Education and Counter-Education
On a Wednesday evening in early March, some 70 community activists met for their weekly forum at La`akea, a “permaculture education facility” in lower Puna. The crowd ranged from Hawaiian sovereignty movement elders to anti-vaccination crusader/conspiracy theorist Len Horowitz. The catalyst that had brought this grassroots movement together was transgenic papaya. But papaya was only the tip of a much larger iceberg. Most of those present believed in small-scale, sustainable agriculture. They saw GM products as only the latest threat from a corporate-controlled, industrialized agribusiness system that was strangling the way of life they loved.
“This is a direct threat to our freedom,” said co-facilitator Sarah Sullivan. “That’s the common thread that’s binding us together. We want to be self-reliant. We want to be sovereign. We want to be free.”
“That’s really scary to me to think that we can’t even grow our own vegetables because somebody might come in and take it from us, or make us pay them for it,” one participant commented.
“What Monsanto was telling the people is with so much poverty and famine, we cannot afford to not to have genetically modified foods,” remarked veteran author-activist Alicia Bay Laurel. “But if you have only a little of this [crop] and a little of that, you don’t have to have all the spraying and you don’t have to have genetically modified crops…. The industrialization of farming is what’s causing the worldwide famine.”
Another noted that for most of the history of the world, every farm had been organic. “The word ‘organic’ associated with a farm is a symptom of a corporate world,” that speaker maintained.
Hawaiian kupuna Sam Kalalaleiki agreed. “This is the way we did it until America came and broke up the units,” he said. “I think all of us – we’re on the right path.”
Former Na’alehu School librarian Eden Peart told of attending a conference where a corporate-sponsored school curriculum unit on genetic engineering was discussed for Hawaii schools. One proposed question dealt with the extinction of native birds because their red feathers were prized for ornamentation, and asked students how genetic engineering could help solve the problem.
“The ‘right’ answer was, ‘Genetically engineer the bird so it has a different color of feathers,'” she recalled.
The group is working on its own strategy of counter-education. On April 11 and 12 at La`akea, they plan a two-day event. HI GEAN will supply a limited number of the new GM tests, so farmers can find out if their papayas have been contaminated with the artificial genes. Participants will tour each other’s farms and do a “work trade to see each others’ strengths.”
But while some saw GM plants, industrialized agriculture, and even vaccinations as a global corporate conspiracy, others cautioned against villainizing the other side.
One activist recalled an encounter with GM researchers: “These people said, ‘Well, there’s starvation all over the world, and I just want to do what I can. And there was this light of love in their eyes….”
“It’s so important that we look at everyone as a potential ally, instead of making everyone out to be an enemy,” Sullivan told the Journal later. “I think building community with everyone involved in this issue is most important to me. All of our problems are only a symptom of a lack of information.”