HONOLULU – Thousands of papaya trees were chopped down on 10 acres of Big Island farmland under the cover of night last month. Hawaii County police said the destruction appeared to be done with a machete, but there are no leads and few clues beyond the tree stumps and all the fruit left to rot.
"It's hard to imagine anybody putting that much effort into doing something like that," said Delan Perry, vice president of the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association. "It means somebody has to have passionate reason."
A growing theory among farmers is that the attack was an act of eco-terrorism, a violent protest against the biotechnology used in growing papayas here. Police did not respond to calls seeking comment.
The majority of papayas grown on 170 farms on Oahu and the Big Island are genetically modified.
University of Hawaii scientists developed the genetically modified fruit that's resistant to a ring spot virus that wiped out production on Oahu in the 1950s and was detected in the Puna district on the Big Island in the 1990s. Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are crops whose genetic makeup has been altered to give the plant a desirable trait. The genetically modified fruit is credited with saving Hawaii's $11 million papaya production industry.
"We wouldn't have a papaya industry today if it weren't for the transgenic papaya," said Alicia Maluafiti, executive director of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, which represents the seed industry and protects biotech crop growers. "Without a transgenic papaya restricting the expansion of the virus, that virus would be prevalent today."
Restricting the virus has also allowed for organic papayas to be grown, she said.
Without the transgenic papaya, the Vitamin C-laden fruit would cost a lot more to enjoy, said Richard Manshardt, a tropical fruit breeder and geneticist at the University of Hawaii who was on the team that developed the genetically modified fruit.
Kevin Richards, director of regulatory relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said he knows of no other crop that relies on biotechnology to save it from disease. Commodity crops such as cotton, soy and corn commonly use genetic engineering in order to make them easier and cheaper to grow.
"Papaya would be unique in the sense where the industry in Hawaii is dependent on biotech," said Richards. "What you have in Hawaii is a very contained, isolated agro-eco system, which is vulnerable to diseases."
He cited international examples of eco-terrorism: activists who took weed-whackers to test crops of drought-resistant wheat in Australia and test plots of biotech eggplants destroyed in the Philippines.
Hawaii's papayas are held up as an example of how biotechnology can improve access to crops, Richards said.
That's especially important in parts of the world with a limited food supply, Manshardt said, adding that genetic engineering could be used to protect cassava crops with severe virus problems in Africa and Latin America.
Hawaii farmers had no choice but to grow GMO papayas in order to survive, said Perry, whose organization has raised a $10,000 reward for information on the crop destruction. "Papaya is the No. 1 fruit eaten in Hawaii," he said.
One of the affected farmers, Erlinda Bernardo, said fellow papaya growers often worry about retaliation from those who are against GMOs. "Most of the product on the island is genetically modified," she said. "If not, most of the farmers would suffer, there would be more unemployment."
Bernardo, her husband and four children are preparing to plant again in another area after 3,000 trees worth $15,000 on five leased acres were destroyed. "We're afraid to plant in that area, so we're giving up the lease there," she said. "When you start all over again, you have to wait a year for the papaya to bear fruit."