In the mid-1990s the papaya farmers of Hawaii were threatened with devastation by a newly rampant disease, papaya ringspot virus. Luckily scientists at the universities of Hawaii and Cornell were already working on the problem. Using some of the newly-invented tools of biotechnology, they used a genetic sequence from the virus and inserted it into the papaya genome. Analogous to vaccination in humans, this produced 100% virus-resistant plants.
The innovation came just in time - by 1998 production in Hawaii's main papaya-growing area had fallen to just half the 1992 level due to viral damage. Following safety trials the GM papaya was cleared by regulators and seeds provided to Hawaiian growers at cost and without patent or other costly restrictions. This was a significant achievement by the public sector as the technology saved the industry and today a majority of Hawaiian papaya, including most of the fruits imported into the United States and Canada from the islands, is genetically modified to be virus resistant.
Buoyed by this success, Cornell scientists began working with researchers in other, mostly developing, countries threatened by the disease, which is the most devastating disease of papaya, globally. Unfortunately, in no other country have farmers been able to access the innovation, due to pressure groups who promote zero tolerance attitudes towards biotechnology—even the public sector produced, pro-poor papaya.
Decades after the industry was saved, anti-GMO pressure groups have circled back to Hawaii, sparking off a divisive political battle in the state to restrict or even forbid cultivation of all GM crops. Papaya farmers would be forced to register the location of GM papaya plants, causing them to incur new fees, making them a target for vandals, and making consumers fearful about a fruit that once saved the island’s economy.
If the anti-GMO activists succeed, Hawaiian papaya producers (most of whom are small-scale family farmers) may be denied access to innovations they have already become dependent upon - harming their livelihoods and undermining many years of successful public sector work.
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