The U.S. Department of Agriculture is gauging citizens' response to genetically modified organisms, asking for public comment until Nov. 3 on a petition from the University of Florida that would allow commercial growing and marketing of the first GM papaya trees in the mainland U.S. The petition asks the USDA to remove regulatory oversight from a variety that has been genetically engineered to resist the ringspot virus.
Since all commercial papaya cultivars are relatively cross-compatible within the same species, contamination of organic growers and native species by wind and insects is inevitable, said Neil Carman, Ph.D., of the Sierra Club's Genetic Engineering Committee.
The Organic Consumers Association is urging people to voice their concerns at http://www.regulations.gov/fdmspublic/component/main?main=DocumentDetail&o=09000064806cf607.
"The approval of perennial GE papaya trees would be a dangerous precedent-setting step by USDA, opening the floodgates for more GE trees including fruit, nut, ornamental, and paper-pulp and timber species, as well as trees engineered for soil remediation and other traits," Carman wrote.
GM varieties of papaya were introduced in Hawaii in 1998 to control ringspot virus, and were widely accepted because Hawaii's crops had recently been decimated by the virus. However, the Honolulu Advertiser reported a few years later that Hawaiian papaya production had tumbled because of imports from Mexico and Brazil and closed export markets, such as Japan, which would not accept the GM varieties.
Other reports mention that the GM varieties produce a weaker tree with lower quality fruit.
"They're apparently not looking at the bigger picture of the economic problems that come with it—the cross-contamination, the market loss, the testing costs," said Melanie Bondera, a board member of Hawaii Seed, an advocate for sustainable agriculture, in an Advertiser interview.