Transgenic papaya... around the world

 Papaya is the first genetically modified fruit authorized for marketing. It was developed in the USA, at the Universities of Hawaii and Cornell. It is designed to resist the "Ringspot"virus. Grown in Hawaii since 1998, it now accounts for over 90% of production ... after 20 years of GM expansion and contamination, where are we now? Global overview of GM papaya.


Native to Central America, the papaya, Carica papaya, is now cultivated in all tropical regions. It is a semi-woody giant grass that loves forest soils, rich in organic matter, well drained and aerated. Its fruits are eaten raw or cooked, green or ripe. [1] Papaya is the 4th most popular tropical fruit with an annual production of over 10 million tonnes. The main producers are India, Brazil, Indonesia and Nigeria, but in terms of exports, Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil and Belize dominate the world market. The US is the largest importer of papaya, followed by the European Union, Singapore, Canada and El Salvador [2] [3]. The roots, leaves, bark and seeds are used in many traditional remedies, and the papain enzyme in the latex, is used in the food and cosmetics industry.


Three varieties cover almost all of commercial production in the most cultivated in all regions of the world : "Maradol" in Latin America, "Tainung" and "Solo"  in Asia. The resulting loss of varieties, coupled with poor farming practices (mechanization and use of chemical inputs) has destroyed natural soil fertility and diversity of agro-ecosystems. The application of artificial nutrients as soluble fertilizer creates an imbalance in the soil. The assimilation of micronutrients is disrupted as well as the plant's  physiological mechanisms. This reduces the plant's natural self-defense system against the parasitic attacks and viral and fungal diseases, including the Papaya Ringspot Virus (PRSV). The most distinctive symptom of the Papaya Ringspot Virus (PRSV) is the appearance of circular spots on the fruit. PRSV also affects the leaves, reduces photosynthesis and induces a decrease in yield and fruit quality (appearance and taste). It is transmitted mainly by aphids, sometimes by infected seeds. There are several strains of the virus: PRSV-P which has an impact on papaya and cucurbits, PRSV-W only on cucurbits and PRSV-T on zucchini. It is present worldwide with a wide variability depending on its location. Ringspot virus PRSV-P is formed (as the majority of plant viruses) of a coated RNA strand of an envelope, called "capsid", which is composed of a succession of virus-specific proteins. To propagate the virus needs a vector aphids, and a host, papaya: when entering a plant cell, the virus is released from its capsid and produces RNA copies. Then, the cell of the infected plant starts to produce the capsid proteins to coat the virus which thus propagates to the neighboring cells ...


To protect themselves against virus attacks, conventional farmers use a combination of tactics: using seeds or plants "guaranteed" free from viruses, fighting aphids and destruction of infected plants (burned or buried). Hawaii, undertook a much more radical attempt to overcome the virulent virus attack on the island of Oahu in the 1950s. The papaya industry abandonned the existing plantations and moved the production area to the Puna district on the Big island of Hawaii, which remains today the main cultivation area.


But PRSV is not inevitable. In traditional agroforestry, papayas are very little affected by this kind of viral diseases. Fertile soil, a diversified agro-ecosystem and the use of traditional varieties hardy allow plants to defend themselves against these attacks. Traditional farmers have good natural remedies: "papaya leaves tea", for example (with properties similar to liquid manure made from nettles used in temperate zones), can provide a rapid and appropriate response. In Hawaii, organic farmers have developed their own method to effectively limit the spread of PRSV: small plots are cultivated, with organic soil and the use of a silica spray that stops the bites of aphids. Despite these existing natural remedies, it is only the genetically engineered solutions, promoted in the late 90s in Hawaii, that are  promoted as the only solution to the PRSV problem : the gene encoding the capsid protein Ringspot virus is isolated and inserted into the DNA of the papaya. The GM plant itself produces the capsid protein Ringspot virus in large quantities which results in destruction of the RNA virus if the GM papaya cells are exposed to the PRSV infection. This mechanism is called "RNA silencing". This type of anti-viral breeding has also been used in the beet, corn, plums, rice and grapes. See:

Birth of the transgenic papaya in Hawaii

In 1989, the University of Hawaii, in collaboration with Cornell University, genetically modified the Solo variety to create GM varieties resistant to the Ringspot Virus: SunUp, Laie Rainbow and Gold. GM papaya was adopted rapidly. The first GM trials tests were carried out in April 1992, and a month later, the PRSV virus was detected for the first time in the Puna district on Big island.of Hawaii.. Coincidence or GM opportunity? Marketing approval was obtained in the United States and Canada in 1997, Japan authorized GM papaya in 2011.  Commercial production began in 1998, when the Administrative Committee of the Papaya (CAP) negotiated access to the various patents required and began distributing seeds to farmers. Today over 90% of papayas grown in the Hawaiian archipelago are GM [4] [5] [6].

Hawaiian papaya represents only 0.1% of world production ... but Hawaii is the stronghold of the biotechnology industry. Isolated from the American continent in the Pacific Ocean, the archipelago, with its exceptional climate and volcanic soils, has been used to conduct more than 6,000 GM field trials on 20,000 hectares over the past 20 years ... resulting in negative environmental consequences and legal battles. [6] Hawaiian associations opposed to GMOs consider that GM papaya was the Trojan horse  biotechnology companies used to start their expansion across the archipelago...

Tests in 22 countries

 Riding the wave of an alleged "success story", the GM papaya technology was exported by Dr Gonsalves’s team, which was one of the creators of the GM papaya. A problem quickly appeared: the PRSV has a very high genetic diversity based on its geographical location. [7] Research conducted in twenty countries, mainly driven by three groups - the Hawaii research team, ISAAA and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) - tested the resistance of the Hawaiian varieties to the PRSV viral strains of these countries, or developed other GM varieties using local strains of the virus.


In 1998 ISAAA facilitated the Papaya Biotechnology Network of Southeast Asia (PBNSA) to develop GM papaya in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand [8] [9]. The Philippines and Malaysia were assisted by Australian research centre. Gonsalves himself, transferred the technology to the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) in Brazil, and via other universities to Jamaica, Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela, Belize, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Thailand and Bangladesh ... China, Taiwan, Japan, India, Peru, and Cuba conducted their own testing. In 2006, the Agricultural University in Guangzhou, developed three transgenic varieties, including the No. 1 Huanong which was rapidly commercialized. It is also resistant to PRSV and is now cultivated in three Chinese provinces **. Other varieties have also been developed with support from the USDA for Guam and the Pacific Islands, and the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. [10] Another, to be grown in Florida, is authorized for marketing in the USA. Furthermore, much research has been conducted on GM papaya varieties resistant to mites, phytophthora, aluminum, herbicides, and to improve the storage or production of vaccines [11] to [21]. Opponents of GMOs destroyed planting and field trials in Hawaii, Venezuela and Thailand[22] [23] [24].

Continuing contamination

These experiments have resulted in significant contamination around the globe. The NGO GMO Free Hawaii in 2004 published the results of a survey that reveals a contamination rate of non-GM fields of Hawaii 50% and 1% of non-GM seeds sold by the University of Hawaii [25], by pollen (many hybrid varieties are hermaphrodites but the majority of traditional varieties are dioecious) and spread via seeds ... what more natural than to sow seeds of the fruit you have consumed? Hong Kong's Agriculture Department conducted a study from 2011 to 2015: 60% of imported papayas are transgenic, from Hawaii, China, but also Thailand, Malaysia, and Fiji, where GM production is not allowed. The study goes further: among the 1,400 papaya trees tested in the HK archipelago 54% were genetically modified despite the fact that GM papaya seeds are not available locally ... confirming a seed propagation from GM fruit imported and sold in the markets. The study concludes that it is impossible to maintain the prohibition of cultivation of GM varieties given the extent of the contamination. [26]

Moreover, in Europe, where GM papaya is not authorized for marketing, alerts listed by the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) confirm the extent of the release: around thirty positive tests and transgenic papaya seizures are reported since 2012 in ten European countries [27] [28]. Alerted by this "wave" of GM papaya from Thailand, Hawaii and India, Europe commissioned an audit with the Thai authorities with the following goal: "evaluate the control system ensuring that GM papaya is not exported to the EU. " The experts conclude that "the origin of the GM papaya is not known" and recommendations to Thailand included, among others, the strict application of its national law. [29]

The Commission focused its concerns on papayas in Thailand. But are Europe and its State members able to guarantee there are no GM papayas on the European market considering  the widespread GM contamination? Which exporting states are able to guarantee the required GM traceability? Note that papaya can be imported in other forms: concentrated juice, canned, dried fruit.

Contamination still continuing ...

The main problem is the absence or the inadequacy of GM regulations in exporting countries. Most international agencies, such as FAO, USAID, AusAID or CIRAD (Agricultural Research for Developpement, a French public agency) [30], encourage the use of Solo papaya varieties (are these GMOs or not?) ... Often in countries without regulation of GMOs ***. Since 2008, ACIAR has supported the Pacific Islands in the development of their papaya export, for example with the "Fiji Papaya Project." The 3rd International Papaya Symposium in 2011 reported Fiji must grow organic papaya, but said "it is possible that GM seeds are imported (from Hawaii)" ... the Fiji Papaua Project receives technical support of Dr. Manshardt, one of the inventors of the Hawaiian GM papaya. [31] [32]. To date, the University of Hawaii is still registered as papaya seed supplier by the Fijian authorities. [33] When the Pacific Community (SPC) encourages the development of certified organic agriculture (PoetCOM), without ensuring the papayas are non-GM states are taking large risks. [34] [35]. Firstly GM papayas are prohibited for distribution in Australia and New Zealand, secondly the emerging regional organic movement that will be badly affected if GM papayas being sold as “organic" were detected. The 22 Pacific Island states have ratified the Cartagena Protocol, but none except Tonga, have applied it. The next regional meeting of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will be held in Fiji in June 2016.


What is the situation in French Overseas Territories and European Overseas Countries and Territories (OCTs) many of which are located in the tropics, where papaya is growing in almost every garden? Indeed, if the marketing of GM papaya is banned in Europe, growing it is too. In Reunion, Mayotte, the West Indies and Guyana, the situation regarding GM papaya is unclear ... In Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, and New Caledonia, the situation is more serious, papaya seeds from Hawaii labelled "non-GMO" are still imported and even encouraged by Institutions. OCTs, in general, are vulnerable, despite being under European jurisdiction...


If any papaya trees are free from contamination despite twenty years of GM papaya testing and production worldwide, how long will they remain so given the lack of controls and poorly enforced regulation? Perhaps the 5th International Symposium on Papaya, to be held in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico in October 2017, will not be dominated by corporate interests ... so maybe the "fruit of the angels" won’t become the GM hell of tropical paradises.

GM papaya in China

GM papaya "Huanong No. 1" has been authorized for marketing in China since 2010. Resistant to PRSV, it is grown in the provinces of Guangdong, Hainan and Guangxi on some 6000 hectares. Officially papaya and cotton are the only GM crops authorized in China. A study conducted in 2012 sampled 223 farmers in these three provinces and reported that 72% of them were unaware that their papaya was GM. About 50% of farmers had not reduced their pesticide applications as they did not know these plants were PRSV resistant. This was the fault of seedling retailers who usually prefer not to pass this on information for "marketing" reasons ... according to a survey in 2015, 72% of Chinese believe that the consumption of GMOs pose risks to health.


Open letter on the Pacific, GMOs and climate

GM Free Alliance Australia/NZ/Pacific published in April 2016 an open letterto the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research and aid agencies.. Extract: Inaction on climate change has exacerbated natural disasters in the Pacific, with more frequent and severe cyclones and droughts affecting Small Pacific Island Countries, and rising saline water tables in many places. Australian aid to these countries must help the people affected and not magnify the impacts of natural disasters.The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) supports GM crop development which threatens the integrity of indigenous agriculture. GM corporations offering free or discounted GM and hybrid seed after disasters also undermines local agriculture e.g. in Timor-Leste.As Australia is not a Party to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, its governments and regulators have scant commitment to the safe international transfer, handling and use of GMOs. GM seeds and hybrids dependent on costly inputs must not be used as a Trojan Horse to infiltrate industrial agriculture into vulnerable and unsuitable locations. In this context, we ask the Australian government and associated aid agencies to:

  • Provide only seeds and assistance that guarantee the continued availability of farmer saved cultivars, landraces and wild germplasm;
  • Establish seed banks that are solely for public use and cannot be commercialised;
  • Support the development of agro-ecological systems for farming and seed production, and guaranty the preservation of heritage crops and traditional agriculture of the Pacific.

Full text:



[1] Des fruits et des graines comestibles du monde entier, Ed. Lavoisier









[10] Recent advances in the development of transgenic papaya technology, Biotechnology annual review

[11] et

[12] Gene technology for papaya Ringspot virus, The Scientific Worl Journal

[13] Advances in papaya biotechnology, Biocatalysis and Agricultural Biotechnology

[14] Development of virus resistant transgenic papayas expressing the coat protein gene from a Brazilian isolate of Papaya ringspot virus, Fitopatologia Brasileira


[16] et




[20 ]



















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