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.
Cottonseed — Right, used in hydrogenated oils.
Canola — Uh-huh, that too.
Soy — Yeah…GE is the least of your problems, Soybean. Blech!
Sugar, from Sugar Beets — Well, I pretty much try not to eat you, too.
Certain Varieties of Zucchini — Hmm, okay…
Crookneck Squash — Uh, I don’t even know what thats is.
HAWAIIAN PAPAYA [dramatic emphasis mine] — ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?!?
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).
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…