An alien plant form has invaded Hong Kong and within a few short years has virtually overrun the territory. The invader is a genetically modified form of papayas, which has become so prevalent that a debate is underway as to whether the engineered food should be exempted from the Genetically Modified Food Ordinance, which became law on Sept 1. Local organic farms are mounting vigorous opposition. Kahon Chan reports.
On a typical July morning in Pahoa of Hawaii, papaya farmer Lea Bernardo woke up to a staggering scene: thousands of papaya trees in his farms and in neighboring farms had been chopped down at the trunk, leaving all the fruit to rot. The Hawaii Papaya Industry Association called it was an act of "eco-terrorism" and offered a reward of $10,000 to track down the offenders.
The papayas trees that had been attacked were genetically modified (GM) to resist a deadly ring spot virus, as were the trees on 170 other farms on Oahu and the Big Island. The ring spot virus became epidemic more than half a century ago and during the 1950s wiped out all the papaya farms on the island of Oahu. Scientists from the University of Hawaii came up with a permanent solution in the 1990s - the genetic makeup of papaya plants was partially swapped to make them immune to the virus. The modified plant has been described as transgenic.
Transgenic papayas were first grown commercially in 1998 and now make up the majority of Hawaiian papayas. Though the genetically altered plants were credited with saving the industry, according to Hawaii's Department of Agriculture, the annual yield of papayas in 2009 remained lower than when the ring spot virus was at its peak.
The act of vandalism in July was another harsh reminder that environmental activists continue to haunt the food industry and even consumers. These activists oppose the practice of genetically modifying plants because the downstream affect of the modifications cannot be foretold. Greenpeace, for instance, contents the GM papaya contains a protein that causes allergies and a strain of antibiotic resistance marker gene. Evidence to support this argument, however, is limited.
Organic farms in Hawaii have faced a more pressing challenge. Certified organic farms are prohibited from producing GM crops and if bees land on flowers of organic papaya trees after a buffet in a GM papaya field, DNA of the modified papaya will blend with that of the organic fruit so that its seeds are thus "contaminated". The fruit can no longer be sold at the lucrative "organic" price.
In Hong Kong, 9,000 km away from the vandalized farms in Hawaii, Augustine To Yat-man lost his only certified non-GM papaya tree early this summer. It came down during a tropical storm. The good news for To is that the lateral shoots growing from the broken trunk will grow into virtual clones of the certified tree and its fruit will be ready for harvest in just a few months.
Exposed to open air, however, To's organic papaya trees are now just as vulnerable as those in Hawaii.
"The problem is how necessary it was," he questioned. "No one will die from a papaya hunger. It is ridiculous to work on this project with uncertainties," he added, entering his own doubts about the need for GM papayas.
In 2006, an NGO, the Green Produce Foundation, reported that transgenic papaya seeds were unwittingly distributed to the foundation in the spring of 2005. Green Produce described the error as "heartbreaking" as its organic farms had been growing and selling GM crops for a whole year.
Papayas do grow fast. The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) has tested DNA among engineered crops since 2008 and found out 35-61 percent of the papaya samples collected from local trees contained engineered genes. They are all over the place.
The prevailing theory points to villagers' habits: seeds of savory fruits are randomly dumped in their backyards and the subsequent cross-pollination has carried the viral resistant genes everywhere. Since organic farms have to bear the high cost of genetic modifications testing if the produce proves to have been result turns out to have been modified. As a result, certified farms in Hong Kong avoid growing papayas.
When the Genetically Modified Organisms (Control of Release) Ordinance kicked into effect on Sept 1 2011, papaya remained the only GM crop extensively grown in Hong Kong. The new law, enacted in accordance with the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, under the Convention on Biological Diversity, regulates the release of GM organisms into the environment. The ordinance specifies that if a GM organism is released into the environment, it must be destroyed, unless it is approved or exempted.
A controversial legislative process is underway aimed at excluding papayas from regulation. Augustine To, with other farmers and NGOs, formed a union in June demanding that the proposed exemption be thrown out.
He said: "The government spared no resources to rectify the situation and turned a blind eye to it. Is this what a responsible government should do?"
To show what could be done, the union plans to designate a "genetically modified organism-free (GMO-free) agricultural zone" in the rural area of Hok Lau in Fanling. That plan is to swap other villagers' papaya trees with non-modified papaya seedlings on a voluntary basis. "The villagers are not stubborn. I walked into a neighbor to tell her that 'my tree is better than yours' and offered the swap. She was happy about it."
The official explanation of the AFCD is that according to a risk assessment required by the new ordinance, papaya is not a native plant and that its transgenic version is "extremely unlikely" to bring any adverse impact on the local habitat.
The unofficial obstacle is the vast spread of transgenic papaya trees. Augustine To estimated there are at least 500 papaya trees in the proposed "GMO-free zone" and his estimate for all of Hong Kong would be counted into "many thousands".
Jonathan Wong, director of Hong Kong Organic Resource Centre and a professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University, agreed the exemption is "unfair to some degree" to local organic farmers, but the entire GMO Ordinance might be rendered valueless if papayas are not exempted. "If you enforce it against the papayas, how practical would it be?" Provided that transgenic papayas are in the wild for several years, it has become difficult to reverse their potential impact on the habitat.
Wong does not support genetic engineering, but he does not deny the lack of strong evidence that the engineered papaya is harmful in any way. For instance, allergies attributed to transgenic papayas may have nothing to do with the engineered gene. "We are talking about coexistence. One cannot write off the other. Conventional agriculture is still the mainstream."
The center is now looking into ways to help the organic farmers, including recognition of a papaya fruit as organic even its seeds were contaminated by the viral resistant gene.
In the eye of a supporter of genetic modification, there is even a feeling that the intent of the ordinance has been "somehow distorted".
Lam Hon-ming, deputy director of the State Key Laboratory of Agrobiotechnology at Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that the ordinance never was intended to imply that GM crops are dangerous, either for human consumption or for the environment.
"A procedure to follow and a prevention are two different concepts," he said.
He understands that advocates for organic farming would prefer "the world to be wholly organic", but with inadequate scientific proof to back their argument against modified crops, he said "it does not make much sense to chop away others' trees because you want to protect your organic crop".
Lam expressed concern even at the way the GMO ordinance is phrased, in that it stipulates the release of any such organism "must not" be approved by the Director of AFCD unless he is satisfied that "possible adverse biosafety effect" is acceptable or manageable. Wording such as this, Lam argues, might reinforce "misinterpretation" of the intent of the ordinance, adding that it appeared the law was drafted to satisfy the demands of pressure groups.
Green Produce Foundation, which was the recipient of the errant distribution of GM papaya seeds in 2005, is participating in the campaigning against exempting papaya crops for organic food standards. But in order to prevent the public from unwittingly GM plants in the future, the foundation argues the case also underlines the importance to enforcing mandatory labeling for engineered foods sold in the market.
Lam Hon-ming countered "there is no real case to pursue" a mandatory labeling that may involve a lot of public expenses.
The Executive Secretary of Green Produce Foundation Vicky Lau Yuen-yee said she hears differently from people in the food industry. She said if a mandatory labeling law were put in place, food companies would simply avoid the labeling hassle by switching to non-modified foods.
"We may have no confirmed evidence, but if there is concern, there should be mandatory labeling for consumers to make their own choice," she said, "At least people should be informed about what they are buying."
After all, it is the market that matters. Back at his organic farm deep in the woods, Augustine To admitted that public attention to the campaign has been limited and the government could just ignore their voice with all the procedures underway.
"In the end, we will leave the consumers to determine if our argument is important or not," he said.