On my last trip to Indonesia, I ate papaya every day for two weeks straight. This tropical fruit is typically served after dinner as it is not only sweet but also aids in digestion. The papaya is peeled and de-seeded, chopped into bite-sized chunks, and displayed with lime wedges and dainty forks. I can tell you that not once did I tire of this luscious and delectable treat.

Today, the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) sent out a press release announcing that the Government of Japan will now allow commercial import of genetically modified papaya to Japan. The approved variety is called Rainbow papaya and it is grown in the state of Hawaii. Below, the USDA explains how and why Rainbow papaya was created:

In the 1990s, an outbreak of the papaya ringspot virus decimated Hawaii’s papaya crop. Scientists from Cornell University, the University of Hawaii, The Upjohn Company and USDA’s Agricultural Research Service used biotechnology to develop the Rainbow papaya, which is resistant to the virus. After receiving full clearance from the U.S. government, the Rainbow papaya was commercialized in 1998. Now, the majority of Hawaii’s papaya crop is resistant to ringspot virus through genetic engineering.

Did you catch that last sentence? Now, the majority of Hawaii’s papaya crop is resistant to ringspot virus through genetic engineering. I’ve seen a variety of statistics, but it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 80% GM (genetically modified). The next time you buy a papaya, be warned. If it is from Hawaii, it is likely a GM variety. Of course, unless you know the variety, you won’t know for sure because the US does not require labeling of GM crops or foods.

Related post: Slap a Label on them Already!

Japan used to be a huge market for Hawaiian papaya growers with sales in 1996 at $15M. However, after most of the papaya went the GM route, Japanese sales plummeted to $1M as exports were halted pending safety testing and approval of the GM variety. Japan allows the import of certain GM crops based on their own safety review and testing (see the full list here. PDF updated 12/1/11), but does require GM labeling. As of December 1, 2011, Hawaiian growers can now export genetically engineered Rainbow papaya to Japan.

The press release touts this as excellent news for job creation and a testament to the USDA as it “worked aggressively to break down barriers to trade.” While job creation is certainly needed for our struggling economy, it is disturbing that we are looking at GMO crops as our future. Of course there is no mention to what this might mean for the safety of the people who grow and consume the GM papaya, or what the long term environmental concerns are. It seems we always have to learn that the hard way…Agent Orange or DDT anyone??

What to do at the Grocery Store

Take note of where the papaya was grown and the variety name as this will help you know if it is GM. Note that certified organic produce cannot be GM. Here is a list of varieties (not inclusive) and GM status:

Solo/Kapoho Solo – NOT genetically modified

Rainbow – GMO

Kamiya/Laie Gold/Kamiah – GMO

Sunrise/SunUp – GMO

Tainung No 1 – NOT genetically modified

Mexican Red/Mexican Yellow – NOT genetically modified

Orange Queen – NOT genetically modified

 

A few tidbits about Papaya:

Also referred to as Papaw or Paw Paw (Australia), Mamao (Brazil), and Tree Melon.

While exact origin is unknown, the papaya is believed to be native to southern Mexico and Central America.

Good sources of vitamin A, C and potassium.

The two main varieties are Hawaiian and Mexican. Mexican papayas can get huge with some weighing more than 20 pounds and 15 inches!

As it ripens, it will turn from green to yellow. Papayas ripen quickly at room temperature or in a paper bag.

Rich in enzymes (papain & chymopapain) that aid in digestion and stimulate stomach secretions.

 

Sources:

CDC
Hawaiian Papaya Industry Association
California Rare Fruit Growers
Connor Seed Production
Image: janineomg via Flickr