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What Farming Ban? The Maui GMO Initiative, herbicides and the Rainbow Papaya

However, in an attempt to save the papaya industry, Dennis Gonsalves, along with researchers from University of Hawaii, engineered the Rainbow Papaya. The Rainbow Papaya was engineered by adding genetics from the ringspot virus to the genetics of the papaya, making it resistant to the virus.

Many share the belief that Dennis Gonsalves literally saved the Hawaiian papaya from death, as a July 20th 1999 New York Times article headlined: “Stalked by Deadly Virus, Papaya Lives to Breed Again.”

Rainbow Papaya seeds soon were introduced to the Big Island. The local farmer’s association, the Papaya Administrative Committee, even paid to have seeds given out for free to local farmers.

Then, an interesting thing happened.

First, the population of healthy papayas resurrected on the Big Island, as the Rainbow Papaya proved to be ringspot resistant.

Second, many foreign nations stopped buying papayas from Hawaii. Particularly Japan, historically the largest market for Hawaiian papayas, refused to purchase the Rainbow Papaya, because of a ban on GMO crop imports. Although Japan lifted its ban on the Rainbow Papaya in 2011 Japan still requires the crop be labeled as containing GMO’s and this has resulted in low sales.

Despite the relative economic successes of the Rainbow Papaya, many Big Island residents still vigorously disapprove of the GE crop. In fact, just last year in December of 2013, the Big Island passed a law banning the introduction of any new GMO crops on to the island. This ban still allows for residents to grow the Rainbow Papaya.

The ban passed on the Big Island inspired similar bans on Kauai and Maui. However, the Big Island has largely been free of the influence of large chemical companies, while Kauai and Maui are used as testing grounds by the biggest chemical companies in the world.

Many Big Island residents supported the ban, because the majority of trees on the Big Island had become impacted by pollen drift from the Rainbow Papaya, meaning most papaya trees at least partially contained the Rainbow gene.

Tama Kaleleiki, a current Maui resident who lived on the Big Island in Puna, explained to me how his papaya tree had caught his attention.

Kaleleiki said that the Rainbow papaya “probably did” save the papaya industry, but they also monopolized the market. “It means you have to buy that seed from that company because it will not fruit.”

Kaleleiki explained that he had never even heard of GMO until his Papaya tree stopped producing fruit. However, when his cousin saw his tree, he told him that it had been pollinated by the Rainbow Papaya.

Kaleleiki learned that the nearby Leilani Estates were filled with “acres and acres of papaya.” One person there told him that the trees there had stopped producing, also because they had been impacted by pollen drift by the Rainbow Papaya. He also learned that the farmers had been told that they would have to pay for whatever papaya they produced. This is because the gene strain of the Rainbow Papaya is actually trademarked, thus making any Rainbow Papaya the intellectual property of the industry.


Genetically engineered seeds are a modern invention and have a lot of scientific and legal gray area. At the center of the debate is the fact that GE seeds can be declared as intellectual property. This means that, for the first time in human history, a company can own the trademark on a plant. Also, the first generation seed of the Rainbow Papaya is thought to be the most resistant to the ringspot virus, while subsequent generations can become infected. Therefore, the Rainbow Papaya turns the very existence of papayas into a monopolized business, forcing farmers to buy news seeds every cycle.

Clearly, the vote on Maui will be an important decision. The complexities of the issue come from the fact that it is a difficult scientific question about human and ecological health, coupled with ethical questions about privatization and commodification, played out in the land of Hawaii, an industrialized but also sacred place to many residents.

Labeling the proposed initiative as a ‘Farming Ban’ fails to recognize the greater issues of the debate. By pretending this issue is simply a question of whether or not one supports local farmers, CAMCFB manages to avoid tackling many of the tough choices. As Elle Cochran, council member for West Maui, said in response to being asked if the label of a Farming Ban was misleading: “Yeah, I believe it is. It’s not anti agriculture, I believe it is very misleading.”

Voting on the initiative is set to take place in Maui County on November 4th, 2014.

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About David Kelley Smith

David Kelley Smith is a staff writer at MAUIWatch. He is a recent graduate of the University of Hawaii at Manoa holding bachelor degrees in both Political Science and American History. David was also a staff writer for the student paper Ka Leo O Hawaii and is now covering community and political issues in Maui County.

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