Monday, March 17 marked the beginning of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association (HCIA)/Hawaii Chamber “Biotech Week” in Honolulu. Well-attended by employees of the seed companies and many farmers at the state capital and elected officials, the event reminded everyone of the importance of biotechnology in the agricultural community of Hawaii. During my time there, I was able to hear first-hand accounts of the role that biotech has played in the survival of the papaya industry and the impact of the current Hawaii County ban of GM crops on papaya farmers and ranchers.
The Rainbow Papaya Story is still very much familiar to not only the papaya famers of Hawaii but to the general public as well. In the 1950s, a devastating papaya ringspot virus spread on island of Oahu causing severe economic loses. Papaya production then had to move to the Puna area of the Big Island in the 1960s, but, by 1997, the virus had almost destroyed the industry. Production of Hawaii’s fifth largest crop fell by nearly 40 percent, farmers were going out of business, and Hawaii’s once $17 million papaya industry was struggling to survive.
Then biotechnology becomes the island’s lucky charm. In 1997, the U.S. government concluded its regulatory review of the first genetically engineered papaya variety named Rainbow, which includes a gene that makes the papaya plants resistant to the ringspot virus. Commercialized in 1998, the genetic improvement had not only begun to show promise for the Hawaii papaya industry, but production actually began to return to levels near where they were before the papaya ringspot virus invaded.
BY NANCY COOK LAUER | WEST HAWAII TODAY
HILO — An agricultural research center on a hillside overlooking Hilo is getting a little bigger, thanks to a $6.2 million federal grant celebrated Friday at a dedication ceremony.
The U.S. Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center is one of about 100 such facilities scattered across the globe. The Hawaii center has researched the papaya ringspot virus, fruit flies, nematodes, purple sweet potatoes and other problems and opportunities unique to the tropics.
The expansion adds 4,500 square feet of technical office and conference space to the 35,000-square-foot, $48 million first phase of the facility. It houses 15 scientists and 65 support staff on 30 acres.
“We’re dedicating a building today, but it is more than bricks and mortar,” said Sylvia Yuen, interim dean of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “The legacy will continue in the research … that will help solve serious agricultural problems.”
Facilities include laboratories, greenhouses and what’s called the “head house,” where plants are worked on before and after they’re in the greenhouse environment. The head house is equipped with photovoltaic cells generating 40 kilowatt-hours of electricity.