Hawaii GMO Foods

Genetically modified food in Hawaii

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Hawaii's genetically modified (GM) varieties of papaya were developed by Dr. Dennis Gonsalves, a native Hawaiian raised on a sugar plantation in Kohala on the island of Hawaii. While at Cornell University, he developed and commercialized genetically modified papaya plants to protect Hawaiian papayas from a deadly virus. Now more than 75% of the papayas grown in Hawaii are his GM Rainbow variety papayas. 

GMO Papayas

Dr. Gonsalves created GM papaya to save Hawaii's papaya industry from the ringspot virus which showed up in Hawaii in the 1940’s. The virus destroyed papaya production on Oahu in the 1950’s causing the papaya industry to move to Puna on the island of Hawaii in the 1960’s. Farmers in Puna now produce 95% of Hawaii’s papaya. Dr. Gonsalves began his research to develop a genetically engineered papaya resistant to the ringspot virus in the 1980’s and in 1992 a field trial was started on Oahu. By 1994, half of Puna’s papaya acreage was infected with the ringspot virus, but the genetically altered SunUp and Rainbow varieties of papaya were available by then to replace them. In 1997, the EPA and FDA granted approval for the sale of the GM papaya varieties. Exports of GM papayas started to the US mainland, Canada, and China. 

But being able to sell to the Japanese market is critical to the success of Hawaii's papaya industry. Sales of Hawaiian papaya to Japan were $15 million in 1996 but dwindled to $1.2 million in 2009 due to the shortage of non-GMO papaya. 

In 2002, Dr. Gonsalves left Cornell to become director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo, Hawaii. After joining the USDA, he focused on getting Japan to approve the GM papaya varieties. Japan's process relies on scientific data, rather than being a political process. In April 2010, Japan gave its approval for the import of genetically modified (GM) papaya from Hawaii. The fruits will be available in Japanese supermarkets this year. 

In addition to Papaya, GMO coffee plants have been growing in Hawaii. Local squash, zucchini, and even sweet corn are often GMO.

The big GM companies, Monsanto and Bayer, cite the lack of litigation for any substantiated health impacts due to GM food as proof of the safety of GM foods. Though we are not sure that a lack of litigation is proof of food safety, it does indicate that should there be any health effects from eating GM foods, they might be subtle.

Biotech companies claim the Bt toxin gene added to GM plants from soil bacteria bacillus thuringiensis is safe since organic farmers use it in a spray. But Bt sprayings by plane to kill gypsy moths caused hundreds of people to report allergy or flu symptoms and some to go to the emergency room due to its effects. The Bt toxin in GM plants is more concentrated than the spray and remains in the plant rather than being able to be washed off.

Living in Hawaii, we thought we could reduce the amount of GM foods in our diet. However, the more we learn about genetically altered foods and food additives, the more we are confronted with their presence in products we never imagine they could be in. We have changed our diet to exclude all grains and only eat tropical oils. We limit our vegetables to low-carb lettuce, cabbage, celery, kale, etc. We try to eat local grown veggies, local grass-fed beef, and local caught fish. Even so, since products in the US do not have to say they are GM, we are likely getting GM ingredients and produce in our diet.

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