The scent of GE Papaya

Feature story - 3 July, 2003
Papaya is the latest target of the genetic engineering (GE) industry. The Thai government is seeking to introduce the crop to Thailand despite the fact that GE papaya has already been a failure in Hawaii, the only place in the world where GE papaya is grown commercially. Behind this push are the GE industry's big players, hoping to expand corporate control of the food chain into Asia.

A roadside stall selling papaya.

Papaya is a staple food in some parts of South-East Asia. It is a vital part of the Thai kitchen and features in famous local Thai dishes such as Som Tam, a spicy papaya salad.

Why play with nature's green papaya?

Papaya grown on monoculture plantations, as is the practice on the island of Hawaii, the United States' 50th State, suffer from ringspot virus. Plant diseases and pests flourish in these unnatural, intensive plantations.

Thai farmers traditionally combat ringspot by growing papaya with other crops. The insects that transmit the virus are controlled with environmentally friendly techniques. GE papaya is, therefore, an unnecessary solution to a problem that can be controlled naturally.

Rather than advocating a change in farming practices to deal with the virus, scientists decided that playing with nature was the better option.

A science based on luck

They decided to make the plant resistant to the virus by adding a gene from the virus to the papaya cell, along with other virus and antibiotic resistance genes. In tampering with evolution, you might expect that at least the scientists know what they are doing. But apparently they have no idea how the virus gene actual makes the papaya resistant to the virus. Not only this, but the scientists have also said that they could not control which type of papaya to make into GE papaya because it's a random process, based on luck.

Lucky for whom?

Five years after the GE papaya strain 'Sun Up' was approved in Hawaii, scientists have discovered that it is actually more susceptible to other plant diseases such as 'blackspot' fungus. Now the blackspot fungus is spreading among GE papaya in Hawaii. So the scientists' luck in getting Sun Up to become GE is bad luck for farmers who now have a new disease problem. Farmers who grow GE papaya must spray toxic chemical fungicides on their papaya every 10 days.

Spreading the seeds of disaster to Thailand

The Thai authorities, along with those backing GE papaya (like Monsanto, which holds several GMO papaya patents), are rushing through the GE papaya's introduction in Thailand without adequate testing. Are they rushing because GE papaya is so beneficial? Not according to the farmers who have been growing it in Hawaii.

No market for GE papaya

"When GMO papaya was introduced 5 years ago they claimed it was a 'solution' to the papaya ringspot virus problem. But instead it has caused serious environmental and economic problems for farmers," said Melanie Bondera, a sustainable agriculture farmer and member of the Hawaii Genetic Engineering Action Network (HIGEAN) on Big Island, Hawaii.

When they started growing GE papaya, Hawaiian farmers lost their biggest export markets, with devastating results. The selling price of GMO papaya fell to 30-40 percent below production costs, and the price that farmers now get for their GMO papaya is 600 percent lower than the price for organic papaya.

Corporate control of the food chain

The patent holders "act like God - they have way too much power over nature", said Mike, a farmer sued for unwittingly growing GE papaya without an official agreement.

Farmers growing GE papaya must follow the rules of those who hold the patents to the GE papaya - in Thailand that's transnational corporations and overseas universities. And there are up to 20 US and international patents that could be applied to GE papaya in Thailand, including patents held by the GE giant, Monsanto.

What this means in practice is that seeds cannot be saved or exchanged and farmers can be sued if their crops become contaminated by GE papaya.

In Hawaii, many organic farmers' papaya trees were contaminated by GE - by pollen from neighbouring GE papaya trees, or when GE papaya seeds got mixed in with organic seeds. They were forced to destroy all their papaya trees.

"These guys own the wind", said one farmer commenting on the corporate interests behind GE papaya and its contamination of conventional and organic papaya.

The 'Papaya Freedom Fighters'

As if that weren't enough, three years ago an attempt was made to destroy all non-GE papaya trees in Hawaii. Fortunately the farmers realised that the real aim behind the plans was to force them all farmers to grow GE papaya. They formed the 'Papaya Freedom Fighters' and stopped the destruction of their crops.

It's not too late for Thailand

The consequences of growing GE papaya in Thailand are feared to be even more serious than Hawaii. Not only is green papaya eaten as a daily staple food, it is also grown everywhere - in farmers' fields, schoolyards and backyard gardens.

"The message that the Hawaiian farmers bring to clear: we must not allow GE papaya to be released into the environment. It's not too late. We must act now to say no to GE papaya," said Varoonvarn Svansopakul, GE Campaigner for Greenpeace.