While many residents are working hard to support local agriculture and a sustainable lifestyle, others are destroying the very fruits of their labor. Just last month, three papaya farms on 10 acres of land on the Big Island were destroyed. With the trespassers still at large, the community has come together to discuss possible motivations behind the attacks and how they can work together to prevent future destruction of valuable crops.
This isn’t the first time the Puna area has been hit by vandals. Just last year, 8, 500 papaya trees were destroyed, resulting in thousands of dollars of damage. The damage and loss of crops affects not only the papaya farmers but consumers as well. Delan Perry, vice president of the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association, reports that papaya is the “Number one fruit eaten in Hawaii”, and as such, is in high demand. When farmers are forced to start over, it can take a year for a tree to bear fruit. That’s a long time and a lot of unnecessary loss.
So why would anyone go to the trouble of chopping down perfectly good papaya trees? Perry expressed, “It’s hard to imagine anybody putting that much effort into doing something like that,” reasoning that the amount of damage done “means somebody has to have passionate reason”. County representatives, farmers, and community members have some theories, including jealous farmers, marijuana growers, and anti-GMO activists. The latter theory has gained attention from national media outlets and some folks believe that the Puna papaya farm attack is an eco-terrorism incident. In various locations around the world, anti-GMO activists have destroyed genetically modified test crops in an effort to send a strong statement to the scientists developing these crops. It’s possible that the Puna vandalists are trying to send a message to the scientists that developed the genetically modified papaya that is grown here in Hawaii.
After the ring spot virus wiped out Oahu’s papayas in the 1950’s and Puna papayas in the 1990’s, University of Hawaii scientists genetically modified a papaya that could resist the virus. Supporters argue that without the GMO, the papaya industry in the islands would have disappeared. Executive director of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, Alicia Maluafiti, insists, “We wouldn’t have a papaya industry today if it weren’t for the transgenic papaya”.
The Big Island incident not only raises questions of motivation, but is also fueling the food security discussion and the controversy surrounding bioengineered foods. Some anti-GMO activists argue that the genetic makeup of a natural food should not be altered, as the long-term consequences on humans are unclear. But some pro-GMO people believe that biotechnology is one answer to issues of food security and elimination of food deserts. When – if ever – is it acceptable to genetically modify a food? Was the science behind our papayas to blame for inciting an attack on the Big Island papaya farms? If so, can future attacks be prevented by the creation of a neighborhood watch program?
Residents are considering these questions and more, but perhaps the most pressing issue is finding the folks who destroyed the papaya farms. Anyone with information on the incident is asked to call the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association at (808) 969-1160. The organization is offering a $10,000 reward to anyone that provides a tip that leads to the arrest and prosecution of the trespassers responsible for the papaya farm destruction.