Trouble in Paradise? GMO Hawaiian Papayas A Concern for Consumers

When I think of GMO foods, that is, crops which have been altered from their natural state by means of genetic engineering, there’s a short list that pops into my head  — corn, soybeans, canola, cottonseed — the big boys, the brainchildren of Monsanto. They’re the crops that largely fall under their corporate control, in the 90% range and climbing. The ones you can be nearly certain you are consuming in their genetically-engineered form if anywhere on a product’s ingredient list you see their names appear.

In fact, if you’re any sort of a subscriber to Real Food, you know this is one of the main reasons to avoid the processed stuff, as they are highly contaminated with GMO ingredients.

But when it comes to real, fresh foods, there seems to be less of a concern. We know that organically-grown produce is a better choice than conventionally farmed produce, but this is largely in order to avoid chemical toxicity from pesticide and herbicide use — not so much for fear of the foods being GM. And of course, there are foods that pose less of a risk of toxic contamination than others, as our friends at the Environmental Working Group will advise us with the “Clean Fifteen” and the “Dirty Dozen.” So we don’t necessarily absolutely always have to make sure the produce is certifiably organic, it seems.

As for me, I try to buy my produce grown locally from farmers’ markets. And since I don’t generally find myself hankering for a slice of canola (what even IS that, anyway?) or a bud of cotton plant, and I KNOW to avoid soy (at least the unfermented variety, story for another day), that pretty much leaves me with corn to worry about, when it comes to GMOs. I try to buy my cobs of corn from small farmers that I can ask personally whether or not it’s organic, and not born of Monsanto seed.

So is that it, then? Are there any other fresh foods, especially those to be found in my Hawaiian islands, that could potentially be genetically engineered?



In researching which foods to watch out for that could potentially be tainted by genetic engineering, I came across a current list slightly longer than my aforementioned short one, and began assessing it:

Corn — Yeah, I knew that.

CottonseedRight, used in hydrogenated oils.

CanolaUh-huh, that too.

SoyYeah…GE is the least of your problems, Soybean. Blech!

Sugar, from Sugar BeetsWell, I pretty much try not to eat you, too.

Certain Varieties of Zucchini Hmm, okay…

Crookneck SquashUh, I don’t even know what thats is.



How did this happen? What purpose does screwing around with the genes of our precious little papaya serve to warrant such irreverence for this very valued crop of ours? (Papayas are a multimillion dollar industry here, and Hawaii is the only place where they are still commercially grown — it’s important to us!)

Well it turns out, they did kind of have a good reason.

In the 1990’s, a very serious crop disease called the ringspot virus permeated the papaya crops to the point where the business — and the fruit itself — was nearly wiped out, with over a 40% decline in production. Farmers were going out of business, the virus epidemic was ever increasing, and folks were getting pretty worried.

So in 1998, scientists at the University of Hawaii stepped up with what they felt was a good solution. They identified and cloned a gene within the protein of the virus, then inserted it into the fruit, creating resistance  — similar to the way a vaccine can create immunity (um…that one sounded off some alarm bells for ME…anyone else?).

This new breed was dubbed, the “SunUp Papaya.” and was then bred with the standard papaya to create the “Rainbow Papaya.” Cute, huh? And thus, the papaya became genetically engineered, complete with a manhandled, unnatural hybrid form, no less.

The plan to rescue the fruit from near extinction was a success. Within a few years, business had bounced back up to normal, and the industry as a whole was saved. But the integrity of the natural papaya, was not.

And — surprise, surprise! somewhere along the line, Monsanto got their grimy little hands on the patent for the virus-protected papaya. So with that, came their rights to slap a lawsuit on anyone whose organic farms dared to be downwind of the GMO variety, causing cross-contamination of the patent-protected papaya. All other issues aside, this is not something that we ought to support.

A Cause for Concern

Despite claims by the Hawaiian Papaya Industry Association (bias, anyone?), that GMO papayas are perfectly safe for both human consumption and the environment, there is already evidence to suggest that the papaya ringspot virus coat protein (the gene from which is inserted into the GE papaya for vaccine-like resistance) is a “potential” allergen because it contains a string of amino acids identical to a known allergen.

In addition to the risk of unexpected allergic reactions, potential hazards to our health from GE papayas (and other GMOs) include increased antibiotic resistance, which contributes to the risk of superbugs, or antibiotic-resistant disease.

Unfortunately, further scientific evidence pointing to these potential hazards of GMOs is hard to come by. The biggest problem with the claims of GMO safety (coming from those who are trying to sell it to us, in bed with the FDA) is that there really isn’t any proof. It seems to be more of a, “Well, so-far, so-good!” attitude, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be a test subject in this new and potentially dangerous experiment.

Widespread contamination from GE to organic papaya is becoming a huge problem in Hawaii, with many farmers unintentionally ending up with GM seeds either by cross-pollination or by purchased seeds from the University of Hawaii. The papaya population as a whole is now over 50% GMO, with small percentages of contamination being found even on organic farms. Developers are now being pushed to scrutinize the purity of the “organic” seeds they are selling to the community, and turn to other agricultural advances to fend off problems like the ringspot virus, without resorting to genetic engineering.

Dr. Lorrin Pang, MD, MPH, a public health specialist, explains that the GMO contamination crisis needs immediate action taken to rectify it.

“All of these concerns [of GMO health risks to humans] are troubling in themselves, but they would be less worrisome if the GMO mutations did not spread beyond our intentions. [Today’s] report shows that they do. If a health problem arises that is attributable to GMO foods, it will be impossible to recall such a live, dangerous mutation once it has been released into the environment,” (from the Northwest Resistance to Genetic Engineering).

Scary stuff.

What Can We Do?

Is the solution to just never buy papaya again, then — just in case? If you’re concerned enough to go that route, of course that would be the best fool-proof way to never again swallow a bite of a GE papaya. But as for me, I don’t plan on cutting out this favorite fruit of mine any time soon.

If you buy your fruits from farmers’ markets, chances are you probably won’t find any locally-grown papaya on the mainland. Since that leaves you with shopping at the store, thankfully there are some good tactics you can use to avoid the GM variety.

First, you definitely want to pass any papaya specifically labeled “Rainbow,” “Sunrise,” or “Strawberry” papayas, as these are all names of hybrid fruits bred with the original GMO variety.

A true, non-GE papaya has a rich, deeply yellow flesh — not golden or even pink like the hybrids. The real deal is called the “Kapoho” or “Kapoho Solo” papaya, so look for this name if you can.

Another good strategy is to take a look at those little sticker labels on your papaya. They will contain a PLU code, or number, that will indicate how the fruit was grown:

  • Conventionally grown: Four numbers, for example — “1034”
  • Organically grown: Five numbers, starting with the number 9 — “90123”
  • Genetically Modified: Five numbers, starting with the number 8 — “80123”

Pretty slick trick, no?

Since anything labeled USDA Organic cannot be GMO by law, we’re obviously going to be aiming for organic papaya, as that’s a pretty safe bet. Organic growers will frequently test their crops in an attempt to weed out the problem papayas caused by GE cross-contamination.

Oh, and if you do find yourself needing an organic papaya while in Hawaii, come find me! This little guy may have a fruit or two for you soon…



{This post is participating in Fight Back Friday at Food Renegade, Monday Mania at the Healthy Home Economist and Real Food Wednesday at Kelly the Kitchen Kop!}

{Photo credit – 1st, 2nd, 3rd}

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39 Responses to Trouble in Paradise? GMO Hawaiian Papayas A Concern for Consumers
  1. Beth says:

    Thanks for posting this. I look at papayas in the store and move on, not knowing which might be GM. I wonder if they’ve gotten to the papayas from Mexico yet??? That’s closer to us and I’m seeing more and more fruit from Mexico. I know papaya is great for you (and good for your stomach is what I always heard growing up) and I would like to incorporate it into our lives more.

    Thanks for the info!

    • ButterBeliever says:

      Ugh, we get Mexican MANGOS here which drives me absolutely crazy!! Why are we shipping them over from thousands of miles away, when local farmers that grow them right here need our business? So sad. I’m not sure about papayas from Mexico, though my guess is that they are probably fairly contaminated with GM and are unlikely to be organic. I would just stick with USDA organic papayas from HI. Oh and you heard right, by the way — papayas have great natural enzymes that are good for the tummy! :) Thanks for stopping by, Beth!

  2. Robin says:

    Interesting…we were in Oahu recently (in May), and while shopping at Whole Foods I was given a sample of strawberry papaya, had no idea it was GMO. I don’t think that papaya is one of my favorite fruits, just don’t love the texture I guess, but I would think that Whole Foods would do a better job of monitering that. Otherwise, I was really impressed at the selection they had of local produce and products.

    We were staying at the Marriott on the west side, and when we needed to stock up on groceries again, we ended up at Safeway, and after a few minutes there, I decided to just make the drive back to Honolulu to Whole Foods, even though it was so much further away-it was so discouraging to walk into the produce section of Safeway and not see one local product. I went by the fish counter, and even the mahi-mahi was from Peru or somewhere way far away. We did manage to find an awesome farm stand while driving along the North Shore and managed to stock up on lots of goodies. I ate more fruit in Hawaii than I have in a while-you guys have such amazing produce! Just wish the local grocery stores (like Safeway) carried more of it, such a shame!

    • ButterBeliever says:

      I could not agree more!! Safeway just doesn’t do squat to support local businesses and local ag around here… I kinda started boycotting them. Mahi from Peru, how ridiculous! And shame on the Whole Foods, they ought to know better! You know what’s funny? I have never once set foot in the store. I’ve never lived anywhere near it, and like you said, farm stands and markets up here on north shore are worlds better! Who wants to pay “eighty bucks for six things” anyway… <– (Have you seen this? Lol!)

  3. nicole says:

    I saw your link to this article on Fight Back Friday and had to check it out! There’s a lot of good info here.

    I don’t know anything about Oahu, but I thought I should add that most Big Island farmer’s markets do sell non-GMO papaya, and it’s often cheaper than strawberry papaya. The one in Hilo does for sure, and I’ve seen non-GMO papaya at the Volcano farmer’s market as well. Our local grocery chain (KTA) also sells non-GMO produce, and a lot of their produce (and eggs/meat!) are island-grown (and grass-fed!). One of the little perks of living on the B.I., I suppose.

  4. ButterBeliever says:

    Aloha Nicole! Oh you totally do have a lot of perks living on big island! I’d add to that list that you can also fairly easily obtain raw dairy as the “underground” over there is pretty big, from what I hear. Pretty jealous of that! And yeah, at markets here, I’ve definitely seen GM papayas, and you definitely still have to ask to be sure. Even with corn and stuff. Kinda sad. Well, thanks so much for stopping by and reading! So cool to find another real foodie from HI! :)

  5. Musings says:

    I just took a class and they mentioned not eating ANY Hawaiian papayas. That freaked me out because we eat them every morning. I asked our Farmers Market guy what kind he had and he said the Reds were GMOs. But the ones from Kahuku were OK. I think he said it was called Yellow. I’m starting to feel paranoid here.

  6. Musings says:

    By the way, I added a link to your blog from mine. :-)

  7. […] Don’t eat Hawaiian GMO papayas; especially avoid Rainbow (or Sunrise or Strawberry type) papayas. […]

  8. […] soy — both certainly GMO), and for the few fresh foods you might find that are GM (corn and papayas, in particular), just make sure they’re organic. I also think it’s crucial that we get […]

  9. […] no GM varieties” (Smith). Emily of Butter Believer (who lives in the lovely Hawaii) recently wrote a great post about how to differentiate GM papayas from non-GM varieties. Good thing, because I love the taste of fresh […]

  10. Dia says:

    Thanks Emily!
    Crazy, isn’t it??
    So hard to *know* what’s real food, & what’s not! I’ve only been to Hawaii once, & when we visited a little Natural food store, got as many things that were local as I felt I could eat in the few days trip – then at Safeway, watched my friends buy the fruit they were *used to* (I think bananas, but maybe even apples!) while I got some unfamiliar ones, & asked the clerk about how to eat ….
    I do look for OG listing, & have a CSA share so get good OG veggies (& grow many myself) ….

    GMO alfalfa is one of our mainland concerns these days – since it’s big & shades out competition (‘weeds’) no need to spray herbicide on the old crops … now Monsanto will have a new market for Round-up :(

    • ButterBeliever says:

      So crazy. Yeah the GM alfalfa is seriously bad news. Unfortunately, I don’t know that there’s much left to be done about it at this point. Growing your own stuff is a great way to get around the whole Monsantofied food supply though! Good for you. Thanks for your comment, Dia!

  11. david bever says:

    I’ve lived on the BigIsland from the mid-70’s and was eating strawberry papayas then. Gmo at that time,? I don’t think so. Any ideas as to when, if all this new info about strawberry papayas being gmo, as to “when” strawberry papayas went gmo?
    Let’s make sure correct info is out there.

  12. Saskia says:

    I’m on Kauai now with my husband for vacation. I’d love a suggestion on where to get org. papayas. Most of the ones I’ve seen don’t even have labels, I’m not sure where they’ve come from or how they’re grown. Thanks for any suggestions

    • ButterBeliever says:

      I lived on Oahu and I actually never went to Kauai, so I don’t know where a good place to send you is to find organic papayas. But your best bet is probably to just ask. If you’re looking at fruit stands or markets, the people selling them should know. Ask if they are the “solo” or “kapoho” kind. If they’re in a grocery store, check the sticker label using the trick with the numbers I mentioned. Hope you enjoy your vacation!

  13. Mirtika says:

    Thank you for this. I eat a half papaya every day, just about, for breakfast with my eggies. I can’t always find (or afford) the organic ones. I will make sure to go organic or 4 digit conventional. THANKS. My mom had a papaya tree, and one day, I may just plant my own organic one. I ain’t giving up my fave breakfast fruit.

    • ButterBeliever says:

      Ooh, having papaya trees would be awesome if they can grow where you live! Now that I’m an Oregonian, that won’t be the case for me. :) But I still love papayas, too! Thanks for your comment!

  14. JESI says:

    Just bought a papaya, but didn’t realize it’s called “strawberry sunrise” with a PLU # of 3111. Pretty sure it’s gmo!

    • ButterBeliever says:

      Pretty sure you’re right. Ugh… I’m not sure how reliable the sticker trick is with papayas. I’ve heard of them being mislabeled before. Frustrating. :-/ See if you can find the “solo” variety, and try to stick with that.

  15. Mamie says:

    I love strawberry papayas…but I knew from day one (my first visit to the islands) that they are GMO. I ate them anyway. My quest to live a non-GMO life and practice what I preach, I’ve given up a lot of stuff…including eating out at my favorite restaurants.

    Great article…I’m sending it to my friends. I think getting the awareness out there about foods we don’t think about much on the mainland will raise more eyebrows. Even though your wrote it last year, not much has changed.

  16. Mitch W says:

    What allergy does this known allergen provoke? Is the string of amino acids the whole allergen protein or just part of it? Is this string spelling, “SUPER”, as in, “SUPERBUG”, or as in, “SUPERFICIAL” ?

    How does engineered resistance to a plant virus risk antibiotic resistance in bacteria (your, “superbugs”), especially since antibiotics are ineffective against viruses in the first place and this GE papaya doesn’t produce any antibiotics?

    As far as patents are concerned, they last 20 years. This GE papaya was first used in 1999. Now is 2012. 7 more years and it’s public domain.

    If i were these vandals, i would be very careful. A lot of farmers are pro NRA.

  17. Rad Lam says:

    In your article you state ALL strawberry papaya come from GMO seeds. This is NOT true. The GMO papayas are Rainbow and Sun Up. Please CHECK YOUR FACTS before scaring away people and harming good farmers like those at, Kumu Farms. They grow some of the only “NON GMO” papaya in Hawaii and they are Sunrise and Strawberry. Help sustainability and farmers trying to grow NON GMO fruits and vegetables.

  18. Rad lam says:

    Please visit their website or take a tour while in the islands….. Aloha

    • ButterBeliever says:

      Thanks, but, I lived in Hawaii for years. I’ve been to many farms. Check my facts yourself by looking at the sources for my statements. Coming straight from the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association.

      “Sunrise/SunUp – Popular by its nickname “strawberry” papaya, Sunrise has a freckled greenish-yellow skin that turns yellow as the fruit ripens, but inside is a juicy, dramatic red-orange color flesh. SunUp is the genetically engineered papaya of the red-flesh variety that is resistant to the ringspot virus disease.”
      Hawaii Papaya Industry Association

      Doesn’t make much sense for them to shoot themselves in the foot with claims that these types of papayas are GM if they aren’t absolutely sure.

      Look, I know most people aren’t intentionally trying to grow GM seeds. I’ve had several angry farmers come at me accusing me of spreading “lies” (your name sounds familiar, pretty sure you are one of the ones who emailed me) yet won’t accept the fact that I am only quoting information straight from the mouth of their own industry leaders. Grow Kapoho/Solo papayas if you want to avoid GMOs. Sadly, that’s the only one of the four that isn’t GM. It’s not the farmers’ fault, I certainly don’t blame them, but that’s the way things are today.

  19. Alex says:

    We are on Maui – Manna’s organic food store in Paia (the best!) carries two kinds of papaya – my favorite is a “strawberry” papaya from Molokai, its label says no GMO, organic — yet carries the code #3111

    In Napili on teh other side of the island, there are Domingo “strawberry” papaya – no product code – but there is a phone number (808) 937-7582

  20. Tamara says:

    I work in pricing at a supermarket. It is doubtful you will ever really see a tag with an 8 in front on GMO produce. It is possible but only if the plantation tags their own. Otherwise tags are put on at the store just so the product will ring right at the register and the produce clerk would not know to put an 8 in front.
    Case in point is sweet corn. Most local sweet corn sold in supermarkets in summer is GMO (Bt corn). It isn’t usually tagged at all because a checkout girl can see it is corn and knows the PLU. The produce manager probably would only know if it is organic or not and not be able to say anything about it being GMO (Bt corn or Roundup ready field corn). They could give the farm name if it was locally grown in summer. It is much more prevalent to find GMO food in the grocery aisles not produce dept.

    • ButterBeliever says:

      Thanks, Tamara. I wondered how often you would actually see the number with an 8. There aren’t many GMO fresh crops, anyway. Like you said, they’re much more prevalent in prepared/processed foods. I think my source for that info was more saying that if you do see an 8, it’s GMO, but not necessarily that if you don’t see it, that it’s not. For papayas and corn, it’s a better idea to just look for organic, or for papayas, the kapoho solo variety.

  21. Hanakapi'ai says:

    Mahalo for the helpful info!! I live on Kaua’i and get my papayas from Farmers Markets and I’ve been wondering about this for a long time!

  22. Greg says:

    I came across this article today, so I know this is a bit of a late post, but I just wanted to get this out there. The fact of the matter is, without this “GMO” papaya, papaya production would no longer exist. Period. Maybe you could grow a tree in your backyard, but the days of purchasing it in the store would be over. You alluded to Papaya ringspot virus in the article, but you kind of undermined the significance of the disease. Without the genetically resistant papayas, this disease would have completely wiped out the industry. The only reason organic papayas (i.e., non-transgenic) can even be grown today is because so much of the acreage is now planted with resistant papaya. This essentially disrupts the spread of the disease enough to allow for small scale production of susceptible varieties. Another important point is that not all GMO’s are created equal. This isn’t like RoundUp resistance with a gene from a microbe being used in a plant. This is designing a plant that will express its natural response to virus infection before it is infected. This allows it to prevent the disease from becoming systemic. An organic variety would produce the exact same response, it would just do it too late to save the tree. Finally, saying this could in any way lead to antibiotic resistance is absolutely ridiculous and flat out misleading. This is a virus we are talking about. Antibiotics are used for bacterial diseases. These issues have nothing to do with each other. Stop trying to scare people over nothing.

  23. Scott says:

    Having read the article and comments above,I am totally confused as to whether there were strawberry papayas in existence before the GMO variety was introduced. I live in Costa Rica, where papayas can be found in many yards. The flesh of these comes in a range of colors from yellow-orange to pink. As these are easily grown from seed, it is possible that even these backyard plants/trees are cross-bred with GMO papayas (I have been told here that Hawaiian papayas are better than the local ones, so there are plenty of the Hawaiians in the markets). Now I wonder about the seedlings I have growing in my yard, some of which are blossoming right now for the first time.

  24. eatbetter says:

    I came across a papaya at our local farmer’s market with a label “Kahuku Brand”. Is that non-GMO? I hope so. I can’t seem to locate any Kapoho papaya.

  25. Gloria Verka says:

    The papayas grown by Fruta Bomba, a division of Brooks Tropicals of Florida, in Belize are “RoundUP Ready”. They are saturated with insecticides and herbicides. I live across from papaya fields and see how often they spray. Of course, they will say that they are only hybrid plants. I can read the labels on the barrels of chemicals they use, many of the local workers can not.

  26. Thank you for writing this article, and what to look for when shopping. Very helpful!! I posted on fb.

    Kristen Lauter
    Holistic Healers Academy

  27. Brad says:

    i grow my own Papaya here in New Orleans.
    while i have had several different varieties, the Maradol (mexican) papaya seem to do best in the cool
    (sometimes freezing) winters.

    You can buy Papaya seed from University of Hawaii
    its like $1 a pack (NON_GMO)
    you can buy the Rainbow (GMO) for $3
    they have other veggies cheap as well…
    not sure why its triple the cost, i want the Non-Gmo anyway

    LINK provided

  28. Dave Walker says:

    “Strawberry” is a papaya marketing term for pink or red fleshed papaya. It could be GM or not. “Sunrise” and “Sunset” are pink fleshed solo non_GMO. “Sun Up” is a GMO version of “Sunrise” and “Rainbow” is a GMO hybred of “Kapoho”(yellow) and “Sun Up”.”Solo” is a marketing term for small, single serving papayas, and often refers to Kapoho variety fruit.

    The article linked to re:Patents states that Mnsnto recieved a patent for the viral insertion technique and donated rights to several universites. I don’t know who owns the Rainbow patent, but the seeds of most of the above papayas are available quite reasonably from UH ( ). You have to take an orientation before buying GMO seeds.

    Many varieties of solo papayas are available at the “farmers'” markets from 6/$1 to 75 cents each. They are all delicious and nutricious. Enjoy!

  29. Karen says:

    I want to start an organic non gmo small plot of papayas, can you direct me to a place that sells non gmo papaya seeds and do the non gmo papayas self pollinate? I live in central florida..
    thank you

  30. Adon says:

    Thanks for posting this. I’m trying to avoid GMO foods. I bought a papaya the other day at Safeway, came home, and starting reading some articles about GMOs, and listed in the article were papayas. Some papayas are GMO and other varieties aren’t. This was a strawberry papaya and it was nice to see an article about this specifically. 3 bucks for that thing.

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