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More on the biotech papaya contamination issue in Hawaii and Thailand

(Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Below are two stories regarding the biotech papaya contamination issue in Hawaii and Thailand. To see the stories CropChoice carried on this a few days ago, go to: http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=2748

1. Genetically Altered Papayas Pit Scientists Against Activists in Hawaii and Thailand
Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Academic scientists who have developed forms of papaya that can withstand the widespread, destructive ringspot virus are coming under fire in both Hawaii and Thailand. But the researchers say that the criticisms are simply part of the continuing opposition to genetically modified crops that have no known health risks.

In Hawaii, protesters assert that transgenic papaya, developed by scientists at Cornell University and the University of Hawaii, have contaminated organic papaya in the state, potentially ruining the organic-papaya industry.

In Thailand, activists have accused the government of breaking its own ban on testing genetically modified crops. They also charge that the government unfairly awarded patents to Cornell for ways to stem ringspot virus, which decimated Hawaii's papaya trees in the 1990s.

Dozens of growers and consumers rallied at the University of Hawaii at Hilo this month to protest the institution's role in introducing genetically modified papaya trees into the state. Scientists at the university agree that pollen from genetically modified trees, which they developed to defend against ringspot virus, may have been transmitted to organic papaya trees. But such cross-pollination, they say, has probably been limited, and organic farmers can take measures to minimize or even prevent it.

Some papaya farmers and concerned citizens, represented by the Hawaii Genetic Engineering Action Network and GMO-Free Hawaii, have contended that independent testing has found "widespread contamination" in seeds from around the state, as well as in seed stock sold by the University of Hawaii.

New Tree's Quick Spread

The transgenic papaya that Cornell and Hawaii scientists developed, and that private companies have marketed, was the first genetically modified tree, and it has quickly come to dominate the state's papaya crop. Protesters charged that the university did not do enough to warn farmers of the dangers of cross-pollination. They said that the university should now pay for more-detailed analysis of trees and seed stocks, provide liability protection for local growers, and take steps to protect Hawaiian crops from several other genetically engineered plants that scientists from the two universities are developing.

The protesters also asserted that the contamination has broader implications because organic farmers could lose their certification by growing, even inadvertently, genetically engineered papayas. Organic papayas now account for only a small part of the state's crop, but they are essential to export markets, particularly to countries that block imports of genetically engineered crops.

Mark Query, an arborist who directs GMO-Free Hawaii, said in a written statement that the papaya contamination showed that "it is now clear that coexistence of traditional and GMO [genetically modified] crops is impossible."

To a degree, the developers of the genetically modified papaya agree with him. "If you put papaya in a field, there's no way that anybody can say that the pollen or seed is going to stay put there," said Richard M. Manshardt, a professor of tropical-plant and soil science at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, in Honolulu.

He helped to develop the modified papaya in a team led by Dennis Gonsalves, then a Cornell University professor of plant pathology. The research team received the prestigious Alexander von Humboldt Award for Agriculture in 2002 for having "saved the $47-million Hawaiian papaya industry," according to a news release from Cornell. Mr. Gonsalves recently became director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center, in Hilo.

The pollen from any papaya tree, transgenic or not, will spread, said Mr. Manshardt. That is especially true in Hawaii, he said, because of the widespread presence of the trees and fruit across the islands. Many people grow papaya trees in their yards, or throw the seeds from fruit they eat into fields or onto trash piles, he said.

The protesters called for the university to conduct more research into local sustainable crops, rather than modifying the genes of foods.

Mr. Manshardt responded that researchers have tried such approaches as crossing wild and domesticated trees since the 1980s. Developing the genetically modified papaya "was a last resort," he said. "There wouldn't be an industry anymore if not for the genetically modified trees." The genetically engineered papayas were proved safe during seven years of testing by federal agencies, he added.

Andrew Hashimoto, dean of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, agreed. He said that 100 million pounds of the modified papayas have been sold over the past six years, half for consumption within the state, with no reported ill effects. "This product is a safe product," he said. "I eat it every day that I can."

Protesters said that the testing has been insufficient to determine, for example, whether genetically engineered fruit could trigger allergic reactions. They also said that scientists have greatly exaggerated the economic benefits of the modified papayas. They also claimed that transgenic papayas, which are far cheaper than the organic variety, are selling for 30 percent below production costs because of reduced demand, and that this has caused many farmers to go out of business. Growers also complain that the genetically engineered varieties -- called Sunup and Rainbow papayas -- are softer, faster-rotting, and more susceptible than conventional papayas to diseases like the blackspot fungus, so that trees must be sprayed often with toxic chemicals.

Those varieties are certainly much harder to sell abroad because many countries ban genetically modified foods. Japan, for example, once accounted for 40 percent of Hawaii's papaya exports, but the market there has largely disappeared, according to the protesters.

Still, said Mr. Manshardt, "organic growers are benefiting by getting a higher price" for their fruit, so it is up to them to take basic horticultural steps to protect their trees. "There's nothing new about this," he said, "whether it's a transgenic line or any line you don't want to lose though cross-pollination."

In growing organic papayas himself, he said, he simply puts a plastic bag over a small number of flowers during the periods of the year when pollination takes place. "If growers take that insurance, they'll get enough seed from two or three flowers to plant a whole field. Yet they're saying it's a burden on the organic grower."

Activists, said Mr. Hashimoto, are protesting the papayas as "part of an agenda to make themselves visible."

Protests in Thailand

Hawaiian activists have traveled in recent months to Thailand, to help the environmental group Greenpeace organize protests against potential plans to cultivate the genetically modified papaya tree developed by the Cornell and Hawaii scientists.

The concerns have been front-page news in Thailand, particularly over the past two weeks, and have prompted the country's prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, to assert that none of Thailand's exported papayas are genetically modified.

In late July, activists from Greenpeace Southeast Asia sealed off what they said were genetically engineered papaya trees at a Thai Department of Agriculture research station. According to a Greenpeace Web site, the protesters, dressed in protective suits, removed papayas from trees and placed them in hazardous-material containers. They demanded that the government destroy all papaya trees, fruit, seedlings, and seeds in the research station to prevent what they called further contamination.

On the Web site, Varoonvarn Svansopakul, a Greenpeace official, said that the Thai government had banned field trials of genetically modified crops in 2001 to prevent contamination from them, "but we now have proof that not only has this ban failed, but the Department of Agriculture itself has committed a crime that threatens an essential food."

The Thai government has denied that it has conducted tests of genetically modified papaya trees, according to reports in Thai newspapers. But Mr. Gonsalves, who led the team that developed the transgenic fruit tree, said in an e-mail message to The Chronicle that such papaya trees do at least exist in Thailand because he developed one, in cooperation with Thai scientists, specifically for Thai growing conditions.

Greenpeace's larger claim is that Thai growers, like those elsewhere, will face problems from the increasing number of patents involving crops. Farmers will cease to have a say in what they can afford to grow, or even are legally permitted to grow, according to the activists.

They have charged that the awarding of papaya patents to Cornell will hinder Thailand's own efforts to combat ringspot disease. Noting that Thai-government scientists provided samples of ringspot virus to Cornell 10 years ago, Greenpeace is pressing Thai scientists to oppose the awarding of patents related to the disease to Cornell.

Mr. Gonsalves said the Cornell Research Foundation received a patent several years ago on the gene that the virus uses to make its protein coat. Then, this June, he received a patent for virus-resistant plants he developed at Cornell.

Greenpeace representatives have said that Thai farmers and scientists might have to pay to use genes and seeds developed with the patented techniques. But Mr. Gonsalves said: "In our work to transfer technology to Thailand, Cornell Research Foundation worked out a good plan so Thailand can gain the benefits at almost no cost."

According to newspaper reports in Thailand, the agriculture minister, Somsak Thepsuthin, has said that Thailand signed a memorandum of understanding with American researchers to protect Thailand's rights involving the genes of local papayas and discoveries resulting from joint research on the papaya ringspot virus. But the director general of the agriculture department reportedly has asked Cornell to provide a response to Greenpeace's claims.

Patent officials at Cornell could not be reached for comment.

The issue is a burning one in Thailand because some European companies have stopped importing Thai canned fruits in response to fears that they might contain genetically engineered products. The companies reportedly took that step because of allegations that the Thai government was conducting experiments involving genetically engineering papayas -- allegations that the prime minister has publicly denied.

Source: http://chronicle.com/temp/email.php?id=8wk9v774tlp93w74nnogmo5am3gz2ens

2. Clean-up operation likely for GM papaya
Bangkok Post, 14 Sep 2004

Clean-up operations will be organised to tackle possible contamination of plantations in the country by genetically-modified (GM) papayas, the Agriculture Department said yesterday.

The procedure has three stages - eradication of all papaya trees in affected plantations, imposition of 400-metre quarantine zones and investigations into how the contamination occurred, said department chief Chakan Saengraksawong.

The steps are similar to existing plant disease outbreak control measures, he said, and will be set up under the Plant Quarantine Act, which prohibits planting of 89 transgenic crops, including papaya, outside the government's research station due to the potential impact on human health and the environment.

The is the agency's first concrete action since environmental group Greenpeace said it found transgenic papayas, developed by the department's Khon Kaen horticultural research station, in a local farmer's plantation late last month.

Greenpeace alleged the department had illegally distributed genetically modified organisms (GMOs) - papaya seeds - to farmers, a claim denied by the department.

Mr Chakan said the department had randomly tested 300 papaya samples collected from 2,600 farmers who bought papaya seeds from the station last year.

"If a papaya sample tests positive for GMOs, a clean-up will go ahead. Within quarantine zones, all papaya trees will be tested and destroyed if they contain GMOs,'' he said.

Mr Chakan also called on the National Human Rights Commission to release test results on the native papayas from the Khon Kaen plantations so the department could quickly destroy the transgenic papayas if the native stock is affected.

Last week, the commission collected 15 papaya samples from local farmers in Khon Kaen to verify Greenpeace's claim of the spread of transgenic papaya seeds from the department's research station.

A source at the commission said tests, conducted by Mahidol University's laboratory, had found one papaya sample containing GMOs.

However, the result needs to be confirmed by the National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology before Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is informed tomorrow, the source added.

Source: http://www.biothai.org/cgi-bin/content/news/show.pl?0331