A few short months ago, a huge victory was won for biotechnology produced food worldwide. The Rainbow papaya, a variety enhanced through biotechnology to resist the ringspot virus, was approved for shipment to Japan. A chief factor that makes Japan’s approval of these papayas such big news is that this announcement marks the “first horticultural product, and the first direct-to-consumer food product to gain regulatory approval in Japan” (per this report from USDA Foreign Agricultural Service). Considering that the approval process began in 1999, this acceptance is a triumph that’s long overdue!
This was not just a victory for biotech advocates, but also for the Hawaiian farmers who grow this crop and the Japanese consumers who love Hawaiian papaya. Annual sales of Hawaiian papayas shipped to Japan dropped from $15 million in 1996 to $1 million in 2010, as growers awaited Japanese approval of Rainbow papayas; demonstrating the affect this much delayed ruling had on farmers and consumers alike. Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the whole Rainbow papaya story, though, is how it saved an industry on the verge of collapse due to a devastating plant virus.
As a recent article outlines, when the ringspot virus ravaged Hawaiian papayas in the 1990s, a U.S. Department of Agriculture research team led by scientist Dennis Gonsalves, Ph.D. found a way to trigger the plant’s immune system against it. Similar to how a vaccine functions, small bits of the virus itself are added to the papayas to make them immune. Not to worry though, according to Gonsalves, the virus breaks down in a human stomach in just three seconds, and has been proven through extensive testing to be totally safe (they’ve been approved for sale in the U.S. since 1998 and Canada since 2003 after all)!
According to the Hawaii Tribune-Herald, now 76 percent of Hawaii’s papaya crop is made up of Rainbow variety and they have restored the industry from the edge of extinction to production levels similar to before the ringspot virus invasion. So, the value of biotechnology enhanced food has managed to save countless papayas from the ringspot virus, save the Hawaiian growers from disaster, and allow all of us to enjoy more of this tasty fruit. It’s been nearly fourteen years since Rainbow papayas were released – and though it’s been a long road, this is clearly a story with a happy ending!