Being exempted from the Big Island’s new ban on genetically engineered crops will not protect Rainbow papaya growers from dramatic harm, says a top industry leader. Ross Sibucao, president of the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association, is among several farm and ranch leaders from the County of Hawaii who have filed declarations in U.S. District Court outlining claims that they will be specifically harmed by the ban imposed by the island’s local government last December. One of the Big Island’s largest crops, papaya was nearly wiped out by the aphid-transmitted papaya ring spot virus in the 1990s. But researchers at the University of Hawaii and Cornell University used genetic engineering to develop the ring spot virus-resistant Rainbow papaya. Today, the Rainbow papaya accounts for 85 percent of the papaya grown on the Big Island. The state produces around 30 million pounds of papaya a year, and almost all of it is grown on the Big Island. “The majority of papayas grown on the Big Island farms have been improved through genetic engineering,” says Sibucao, a third-generation native-born Hawaiian. He says that while Bill 113 allows Rainbow papaya growers to continue, they will nevertheless be “directly and adversely” impacted. Sibucao says that Bill 113’s ban on open-air testing is already negatively affecting research into new GE varieties able to withstand attacks by harmful plant diseases and pests, including the threat from the Taiwanese strain of papaya ring spot virus. “Once a new plant variety shows promise in an enclosed setting such as growth chamber or greenhouse, the next step is open-air testing,” Sibucao explains. “Bill 113 imposes an absolute ban on all such open-air testing and thus makes it substantially less likely that researchers will develop a variety of GE papaya that is resistant to the Taiwan strain of the papaya ring spot virus and other potential viruses that may threaten the papaya crop on the Big Island.” Sibucao says papaya growers still have to submit to an expensive and time-consuming registration scheme being imposed by the county that is burdensome and intrusive. He also expects the export market for the Rainbow papaya will be harmed by the Big Island’s negative stance on GE crops. Japan and Canada are currently major importers of Rainbow papaya. Sibucao says that the stigmatization of GE papaya has caused several growers to half expansion plans because of Bill 113’s red tape. The papaya association formed to promote commercial interests is now almost entirely tied up with helping members comply with the obligations of Bill 113, he adds. Rather than work to expand the export market, the association has had to pay for advertising to counter negative publicity. To the “politicians and activists” who suggest that growers switch to non-GE varieties of papaya, Sibucao says that’s “neither a feasible or rational option.” In June, papaya, banana, and flower growers, along with Big Island cattlemen, hooked up with the biotechnology industry to sue the local government in order to get Bill 113 tossed out. The lawsuit contends that both the cultivation and open-air bans are preempted by federal law and therefore beyond the powers of a county government. U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Barry M. Kurren has scheduled a hearing on the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment for Oct. 23, 2014. The Big Island’s nursery businesses also face possible damages resulting from the local GE ban, according to Eric Tanouye, president of the Hawaii Floriculture and Nursery Association and the majority owner of Green Point Nurseries in Hilo. Tanouye says that anthurium is critical to the tropical flower industry on the Big Island as a centerpiece that helps drive the sale of other tropical flowers. As a result, it is both grown and sold by businesses such as Green Point Nurseries and is now threatened by bacterial blight and nematodes. Tanouye says that without a solution in the “very near future,” the nurseries on the Big Island will be devastated. In search of a solution, the nursery industry has been working with Dr. Lisa Keith of the Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center. She has been conducting open-air testing under a permit issued by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Bill 113 attempts to impose a local ban on open-air testing, which is in opposition to existing federal protocols. But Tanouye fears the county will attempt to levy fines on the nurseries participating in the federally sanctioned testing. Further, the local ordinance prohibits the development of a GE strain of anthurium that is resistant to nematodes and bacteria bright. Richard Ha, president of the Big Island Banana Growers and owner of Hamakua Springs Country Farms north of Hilo, says the banana bunchy top virus is a threat to the bananas grown on the Big Island. When bananas are infested with the virus, the only option is to destroy them. Ha had to destroy all the bananas on his 250-acre farm in 2004. Ha says the University of Hawaii has made significant progress with a GE banana that is resistant to the banana bunchy top virus. However, the final steps involve open-air testing under USDA supervision. Big Island bananas are also threatened by Fusarium wilt, a fungal disease. Ha says these negative prospects are why the value of agricultural land on the Big Island has fallen off since Bill 113 passed.