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Fighting the stigma of growing GMOs

By Joan Conrow

Though he grew up on his family’s windward Oahu papaya farm, Michael Kamiya had no intention of making agriculture his life’s work.

All that changed when his father, Ken, announced plans to retire. Faced with the prospect of his family’s legacy shutting down, or being sold, Kamiya abandoned a successful career in printing and publishing, traded his Cole Haan dress shoes for hiking boots and returned to the farm.

“Six years later, here I am,” he told the Alliance for Science at the communications course we held for farmers in late September 2017.

Kamiya smiled as he said it, but quickly acknowledged that it wasn’t an easy transition.

“My dad gave me this great advice before I even considered it,” Kamiya recalled. “He told me, ‘Don’t do this if you don’t have a passion. It will never survive, you will be unhappy and the business will fail.’ With that, I had to do a lot of soul searching. At first I can honestly say I didn’t have the passion. It was a very hard life. I had a lot of nights where I regretted the choice I had made.”

But as he became familiar with the business, realized the importance of farming and learned how to enjoy his work, Kamiya began to feel genuine enthusiasm for his new career.

“I was able to nurture that passion within me, and now to this day I can truly say I enjoy my life,” he said. “It is a wonderful experience to see the faces of customers when we deliver those papayas. It’s part of their lives now. It is so rewarding to know that this is something I created. We, my whole company, worked hard to get those papayas to market and people are just ecstatic to get them. That is where you can really feel the passion and the love for the business now.”

Kamiya is a strong supporter of agricultural technology, which he credits for saving his family’s farm. He has childhood memories of his father chopping down papaya trees in a desperate quest to prevent the spread of the deadly ringspot virus, which nearly wiped out the industry in Hawaii. But with the development of a transgenic (GMO) papaya resistant to the virus, the crop can be successfully cultivated throughout the Islands.

“By growing the GMO papaya we are able to have a healthy crop, multiple fields in many locations and now we are able to completely supply a lot of our customers in Honolulu and all throughout the community,” he said.

Kaimya tries to help people better understand the technology behind the GMO papaya by likening it to an immunization shot against disease.  “When you can bring it home to a level that is something you would do for your children, they can understand the importance.”

Though biotechnology has made his farm viable, it created other hardships. “It is very challenging growing GMO papayas in Hawaii,” Kamiya said. “There’s a lot of stigmatism around GMO crops or GMO technology.” He’s attended public meetings where residents denounced him for being a GMO farmer and spraying pesticides, and told him to get out of their community — the same community where he was born and raised.

“Coming out of a meeting like that is a really, really hard thing to swallow,” he said. “But in the end you know that you’re running a business, you’re employing people, you’re supplying food that people love to eat. You know inside that you’re doing something right, so it’s worth the fight.”

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