By HUNTER BISHOP
Tribune-Herald staff writer
This time last year, the Puna-based Hawaii papaya industry was celebrating its first shipment of Rainbow papaya to Japan.
Delan “Rusty” Perry, a Puna farmer since 1974, had waited 13 years for the news and said Japan’s acceptance of the genetically modified, or transgenic, fruit was “big, really big.”
But consumer concern about transgenic fruit remains strong, and last year’s big papaya industry news hasn’t resulted in bigger shipments from Hawaii to Japan — at least not yet, as Hawaii growers are charting a new course for transgenic papaya in Japan.
Perry was among the farmers whose fields were decimated by the papaya ring spot virus in the 1990s. Then scientists developed a genetically engineered papaya that was immune from the virus, which the USDA declared safe in 1998. The industry was revitalized with the success of the Rainbow papaya, however the cautious Japanese government was much slower to give its stamp of approval, keeping its ban in place until December 2011.
Perry, a Big Island farmer since 1974 and member of the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association board, was instrumental in the commercialization of the Rainbow variety of transgenic papaya. “I wish I could say it’s doing great,” he said. “It’s a slow process.”
Consumer resistance to transgenic food products is still strong despite assurances of their safety by government health agencies, said Toshi Aoki, owner of Hawaiian Fresh Products Inc., the only Hawaii Island company currently shipping transgenic papaya to Japan. Aoki said not only Japanese consumers, but the wholesalers who ship papaya and other farm products to Japan are concerned that the stigma attached to transgenic fruit may affect sales of other products.
“They’re just afraid,” Aoki said of the wholesalers. “People hesitate to touch it.”
Aoki shipped 4,630 pounds of transgenic papaya to Japan in 2012, which are sold in 10-pound cartons for about $20 each. By contrast, Hawaii papaya growers shipped more than 1.3 million pounds of non-transgenic papaya to Japan in 2012.
Puna papaya growers were shipping $15 million worth of Hawaii papaya to Japan in 1996 before the ring spot virus disease devastated the Hawaii Island crop. Papaya export sales dropped to around $1 million by 2010 as growers awaited the Japanese government to approve imports of the transgenic fruit.
Yet the market for transgenic fruit in Japan has not picked up with the government’s approval of imports. The price “keeps going lower,” Aoki lamented, but he’s working with industry groups to get around the wholesalers’ reluctance and to develop more interest in foreign markets for Hawaii’s transgenic fruit.
“Actually, sales have been very slow,” said Loren Mochida, a marketing committee member for HPIA and griculture director for W.H. Shipman. “The normal marketing channels, the way the papaya people have always done it, are not working,” he said. Importers and wholesalers fear that a consumer backlash against the genetically modified fruit could lead to resistance to other produce they ship to Japan, modified or not, he said.
Nevertheless, Mochida and Aoki both said many Japanese consumers are finding Hawaii’s GMO papayas tasty and attractive.
Mochida said HPIA is now promoting transgenic papaya in Japan directly to hotels and restaurants, and with “sampling” at food shows and other venues. “We tell them it’s transgenic and when they try it, they like the taste, so sweet, and it’s nice looking,” he said. When sampling directly to the public, he estimated only about one in a thousand Japanese consumers expressed resistance to the GMO aspect of the fruit. “The consumers really liked it,” he said.
Mochida said prominent restaurants in Tokyo and Fukushima Prefecture also will be featuring papayas on their menus in the HPIA’s plan to widen the acceptance of transgenic papaya in Japan. The HPIA also has a marketing consultant in Japan to help introduce the Japanese to transgenic papaya.
Aoki himself traveled to Japan last year to take his products directly to restaurants and hotels, where he had a good reception. “When they see it, when they taste it, they are happy,” he said. “In 2013, I will try to sell direct.”
Email Hunter Bishop at email@example.com.