Papaya Nightmares: A Farmer Struggles Amid Hawaii's GMO Debate

Sophie Cocke/ Civil Beat

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.

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