KEAAU, HAWAII — A canopy of leaves juts from papaya treetops like a plume of ostrich feathers amid the heavy, sweetly scented air on this land south of Hilo. Lower down, plump green thick-skinned papayas hug even rows of skinny, checkered trunks as far as the eye can see.

Upon closer inspection, some of the skins that protect the fruit have turned bright yellow and softened, indicating that they are ripe — and that these juicy papayas should already have been picked and shipped off to grocery stores around the state, or to the mainland U.S. and Canada.

The fruit still clings to the branches on this 100-acre papaya farm because sales have plummeted in recent weeks, says the owner, Alberto Belmes, and the fruit is likely to rot where it is.

He thinks he knows why his papaya sales have been cut in half in a fortnight. The culprit seems to be Hawaii’s polemic debate about biotech crops that has once again reached a fevered pitch. (A papaya industry group confirmed the dip in recent sales and they also attribute it to bad publicity, although they don’t yet have any concrete data.) The high-profile debate is stirring anxiety — and what local papaya farmers consider to be unsubstantiated fears — about the fruit that farmers like Belmes grow and sell.

That is because his papaya trees, like so many others here, are a marvel of modern science. Their DNA was tweaked in the late 1990s to withstand the ringspot virus, which devastated papayas in Keaau. Despite anti-GMO activists’ concerns that produce-profiteers are risking our health and our ecosystem, and working against the very laws of nature, Belmes suggests that the real world of farmers like him is far more nuanced. And, he is confident that his fruit should be eaten, not wasted.

There is little doubt that farmers like Belmes are trapped in the crossfire of a much larger battle — one that could be caricatured as greedy frankenfood makers versus capitalism-hating environmental utopionists — that shows no signs of abating.

On one side, there are some of the world’s biotech giants — including Monsanto, Syngenta, Pioneer, Dow and BASF — that have put roots down in Hawaii in recent years, attracted by year-round growing conditions and an ecosystem of scale to test and grow produce such as seed corn. For such companies, a lot of money hangs in the balance.

On the other side, some GMO opponents have vowed to make Hawaii ground zero for the national and international battle over genetically modified crops.

It is a wide-ranging fight. Among other things, critics worry about pesticide use and the need to keep Hawaii’s limited agricultural land in food production, as opposed to using it for test crops or seed corn that is shipped off island. And some people worry that genetically modified crops, like the papaya, are poisoning the land, contaminating non-GMO crops and even causing human diseases.

In the broader debate, while the major biotech companies have been accused of caring more about money than the world they live in, they did not make the genetically modified rainbow papaya here.

It was created as part of a major public-sector effort to save a crop that might have otherwise disappeared from these islands, so it was not the result of biotech companies trying to cash in. That GMO papaya has also passed the regulatory scrutiny of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The Papaya Wars

It’s hard not to project an air of defiance onto the thousands of healthy papaya trees that stand at attention at Keeau. They have done battle, and were nearly defeated. In fact, just 15 years ago, Hawaii’s papaya industry was on the brink of disappearing.

A ringspot virus had invaded papayas on Oahu as far back as the 1950s. Farmers in the Puna district, the center of Hawaii’s commercial papaya industry, long feared the looming virus until it overtook and infected their crops in 1992, leaving pockmarked circles resembling bulls-eyes on the fruits’ skins. Their leaves turned brown and crumpled.

Belmes’ farm and many others were devastated.

The state aggressively sought to stop the virus, cutting down huge numbers of trees and tagging infected plants. This slowed the virus’ aggressive march, but it didn’t stop it. In 1992, the Puna district was producing 53 million pounds of papaya, or 95 percent of the islands’ crops. Within six years, Puna was producing less than half that much.

The Ticking Clock

It’s hard to imagine anyone in Hawaii who is more concerned about the rising movement to ban GMO crops than Dennis Gonsalves. For one, he created the genetically modified rainbow papaya.

Born and raised on a sugarcane plantation in North Kohala, the kindly looking Gonsalves studied to be a plant virus specialist. He became an associate professor at Cornell University in 1977. A year later, driven by fears that the ringspot virus could invade Keeau, the recent hire in the university’s Department of Plant Pathology began searching for a solution to the virus.

His approach was rather simple: to vaccinate the papayas. But fruits aren’t like humans; you can’t just give a papaya an injection of low-level virus and wait for its immune systems to develop resistance.

After successfully isolating a gene from the virus, the trick was to get it into the chromosomes of the papaya.

Gonsalves, along with a team of other top scientists, turned to a gene gun recently developed by his colleague, John Sanford. They shot thousands of particles into the cells of papaya in the hopes that some of those cells would pick up the DNA and the cellular process would incorporate the DNA into the plants.

In 1991, more than a decade after the team’s research began, the scientist discovered that the inoculated papayas grown in a Cornell greenhouse were warding off the virus.

“I said, ‘Oh my gosh,’ we’ve got something,’” Gonsalves said, his eyes lighting up with excitement as he remembers that moment 22 years ago. “It was very difficult to describe that feeling of elation.”

Having conquered the ringspot virus and earned the gratitude of many Big Island farmers, Gonsalves didn’t dream that another battle loomed for him.

In fact, he retired at the end of last year, with plans to improve his golf game.

His golf game didn’t get much better. The impassioned statewide protests against GMO crops have been effective enough to bring him out of retirement.

Currently, the county councils on the Big Island and Kauai have proposed bills targeting GMOs. On the Big Island, Bill 79 would ban new GMO crops and prohibit biotech companies from farming on the island. The bill has an exemption for the GMO papaya, but it originally sought to impose regulations on papayas that farmers say would have driven them out of business.

If the bill passes, papaya farmers worry that it would increase the stigma on their papayas — further cutting into their livelihood — and that it would open the door for further regulation. The Hawaii County Council is set to vote on the measure on Tuesday.

Papaya trees in Keaau, HI.

A Two-Decade Fight To Save Hawaii’s Papaya

Gonsalves, who was interviewed by Civil Beat among the papaya fields on Belmes’ farm, arrived just hours after stepping off of a flight from Kauai where he met with officials to discuss the GMO debate. And the former retiree was on his way to the Portuguese Chamber of Commerce to discuss the same topic.

He understands the different sides of the GMO debate in Hawaii, as well as the skepticism toward the large GMO companies. But he stresses that saving the papaya was a major effort by the public sector and that it was about saving a fruit that could have simply died off here. He fears that his decades of research into biotech could be lost if the debate doesn’t cool, affecting not just the papaya, but other genetically modified crops that could one day benefit Hawaii farmers.

“Talking about the papaya story might bring a sense of civility to this kind of debate,” he said. “Because, truly this was a public sector program done by just ordinary people like us.”

He added: “The way to solve problems is to sit down and talk story, and I think now is the time to cool it and say, ‘Eh, there has been a lot of emotion.’”

Back on the Farm

The dozen farm workers have left for the day and a languid calm sets in along the eastern slopes of Mauna Kea. The blue sky dims and a soft light percolates through the thick vegetation, as a venomous red centipede meanders through the center of a papaya patch.

Here, the polarized debate over biotech feels worlds away. But as Belmes stands amid one of his fields, about 2,000 people pack a public hearing on Kauai.

Supporters of a bill that would increase regulations on biotech companies tote signs reading, “GMO: Genocide of Humanity” and “Stop Poisoning for Money.”

On the other side of the road, opponents of the bill sport shirts that say: “Support Kauai Ag” and chant “GMO! GMO!”

That scene echoes a similar meeting a few weeks earlier on the Big Island where a crowd gathered to debate Bill 79. During the hearing, some anti-GMO advocates called for the genetically modified papaya trees to be cut down.

Belmes attended that meeting with his wife and children, a family that he supports thanks to such trees. The idea of cutting them down brought tears to his eyes, he recounts. He’s worked in the papaya fields since 1983 when he moved from the Philippines to the Big Island when he was 24.

During most of the interview, he smiles broadly, but when the discussion turns to the future of his crops, his brow furrows and his eyes narrow. “I’m so upset if this bill goes through,” he says. “How could we support our family? Especially now, it’s very hard to find jobs.”

Alberto Belmes and Dennis Gonsalves talk about the GMO debate and the effort to save the rainbow papaya in the latest installment of Hawaii Snapshot.

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