Japanese consumers will likely be seeing genetically modified papayas on their grocery shelves beginning in December.
The Japanese government’s Consumer Affairs Agency on Thursday approved rainbow papayas for sale in that country.
The papayas had previously been approved by Japan’s Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries; and Health, Labour and Welfare ministries. The strain was approved for sale in the U.S. in 1998 and in Canada in 2003.
The Japanese labeling approval was the last step to get the papayas introduced into Japan — there will be a three-month waiting period before the papayas are available.
“The approval by the Japanese government has been slow but thorough,” Delan Perry, the vice president of the Hawaii Papaya Industry, said. “They asked a lot of questions.”
It’s a process that’s taken 10 years.
“It’s an important approval as far as the technology,” said Perry, who is a papaya grower in Kapoho.
The papayas were engineered to resist papaya ring spot virus, which was discovered in the Puna area in 1992 and severely damaged crops there.
To create the resistance to the virus, scientists fused the DNA of the virus into the genetic makeup of a papaya, creating a new strain.
Dennis Gonsalves, the director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service’s Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo, said it’s similar to a vaccination in animals.
The rainbow’s introduction “controlled the virus in Hawaii,” Gonsalves said. “It essentially saved the industry in Hawaii.”
While Gonsalves — who worked with a group of fellow public sector scientists to create the genetically modified fruit — and others say the introduction of rainbow papayas was essential, some disagree.
Organizations such as Greenpeace and the Center for Food Safety have classified genetically modified foods in general as an environmental and food safety hazard.
Although he had been consulted about the virus while he was still in college, Gonsalves — a plant virologist by trade — started in earnest working to create a virus-resistant strain in the 1980s.
His group started its work in anticipation of the virus spreading from the backyards of Hilo — where it had been prevalent since the 1970s — to the papaya fields of Puna. They had a successful field test on Oahu a few months before the virus was detected at the papaya fields of Puna. A half-decade later, rainbow papayas earned approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; the Food and Drug Administration; and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
The plant has grown in popularity since.
Gonsalves said 80 percent of papayas now grown on Hawaii Island are rainbows.
With Thursday’s approval, the industry has a chance to remake inroads in Japan.
“We’re hoping this gives a boost to the market for Hawaii’s papaya growers,” Gonsalves said.
“I think there’s a lot of potential there,” Perry said. “Japan has been a good market.”
Gonsalves said Hawaii papaya growers at one time shipped 20 to 25 percent of the crop to Japan.
“We already ship Kapohos,” Perry said of the strain of papaya that was primarily grown by farmers on the Big Island before they were hit by the papaya ring spot virus. “But they’re very hard to grow.”