The Future

Did GMOs save papayas in Hawaii?

I'm not the biggest fan of papayas. But I know some people love them. Would you believe me if I told you that GMOs have saved papayas in Hawaii from going extinct? Of course, there's controversy around GMOs, but their technology was intended to help crop production. Read on to learn how GMO tech saved one of the world's favourite fruits.

What was killing papaya plants?

Papayas in Hawaii had been suffering from PRSV, the Papaya Ringspot Virus. The virus can be identified by the spots on the papaya skin that look like rings (hence its name). It is an aggressive virus that has been killing papaya plants since the late ‘30s (1939).1

It was first discovered as a mild form of infection that was more annoying than harmful. Over the years, it became more aggressive—so aggressive that some Hawaiian farmers even relocated their farms to a different region (Puna) in Hawaii. But they weren’t able to hide for long.1

The virus found its way to the papayas once again and at one point in time, it killed nearly all papaya trees, and nearly all the industry and economy reliant on papayas.1



How did GMO save papayas?

This is when GMOs came into play. Scientists had an idea to work on a genetically modified papaya so that it could withstand the PRSV virus and hopefully save the industry and thousands of jobs. A dying papaya industry would mean a lot of Hawaiian farmers losing their jobs because their livelihood is dependent on the papaya industry.2

The scientists found the gene that could make papayas resistant to PRSV. They then inbred plants to achieve homozygosity for this particular gene. Homozygosity can sound intimidating, but it’s a simple explanation: it means the two sets of genes you inherit are the same. The gene in question creates a coating protein, which helps protect papaya on a cellular level, making them resistant to PRSV.1

The next step was a field trial. Non-genetically altered papayas and the new papayas were planted. Within a year, the non-GM papayas were infected with the virus, but the GM papayas were virus-free!

After the successful trial, the papayas were permitted to enter the market by multiple health and environmental agencies (FDA, EPA, APHIS) and made available for farmers. However, even if the GM papaya has saved the industry and its farmers, there were still critics of the use of GM in crop production.1

Non-GMO arguments

Again, with GMOs in general, worries about the environment and our health are the main points of concern. Specifically, in Hawaii, the concerns ranged from possible contamination of other seeds to possible health risks for those who eat GM papaya.

In 2013, a council hearing at the Hawaii County Council ended with the ban on GMO papaya in Hawaii. It was met with a lot of backlash, especially from farmers who were left, once again, with no papayas they could plant that would be safe from PRSV. The first group of papayas were killed by a virus, and the second group was perceived to be ‘killed’ by a policy ban. Others felt that the scientific consensus was ignored.

Those who wanted to save papaya production from PRSV protested, and in consideration of their voices, the new law only bans new genetically modified crops and exempts the papaya. Nevertheless, GMOs are still heavily protested, and farmers still face backlash today.3

Whether you like papayas or not, what do you think of using GM as a way to help crops survive and farmers keep farming? Or can you think of an alternative solution? Let us know in the comments!

If you want to know more about GMOs and how they work, you can find articles here and here.

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