HILO, Hawaii After 13 years of negotiations, Japan has approved its first shipment of genetically-modified Rainbow papayas from Hawaii.
"The fact that the Japanese have tested it to the nth degree and evaluated its food and environmental safety proves it"s a good product," said Rod Yonemura, consultant to the 160-member Hawaii Papaya Industry Association based in Hilo, capital of Hawaii"s Big Island.
The Dec. 5 shipment consisted of 1,248 5-pound cases for sale and 32 cases for sampling at Coastco Japan, Yonemura said.
Hawaii, the only U.S. state to produce papaya commercially, turned to genetic modification in the 1990s to save its industry from being wiped out by the papaya ringspot virus, which is transmitted by aphids and threatens papayas around the world.
To introduce the Rainbow to Japanese traders, Yonemura said HPIA is planning a booth at the Super Market Trade Show in Tokyo Feb. 1-3, and another at Foodex Japan in Chiba March 8-9.
The pear-shaped hybrid with the short neck and orange-yellow flesh, now makes up close to 80% of the island"s 1,425-acre crop. Most farms average three to 10 acres in size.
On a "reverse trade mission" for about a dozen mainland and Canadian importers before Christmas, Japanese-born Toshihisa Aoki, president of Hawaiian Fresh Products Inc., showed off the computer-controlled vapor heat chamber where skids of papayas spend about five hours to ensure they"re free of fruit flies and other pests before shipping to Japan and the mainland.
In 2010, Yonemura said Hawaii produced an estimated 12,519 metric tons of papayas, with a value of $10,450,000.
Of that number, an estimated 7,671 metric tons were exported to the mainland, 1,768 tons to Canada and 849 tons to Japan.
He said promotional efforts, which include joining Hawaii"s coffee and cut flower associations for a major lifestyle marketing campaign, aim to double papaya exports in the next five years.
Kenneth Kamiya, president of Kamiya Farm Inc., said the state"s production costs are prohibitive since all farming material must be imported, and labor costs can"t compete with those of developing countries.
Hawaii"s lush, wet environment also works against growers, Kamiya said. The isolated island chain is a magnet for invasive pests with no natural predators, there"s no winter and no dormant period, and chemicals must be rotated so pests don"t become immune to them.
Kicking at the rocky and uneven black volcanic soil on a small plantation in Keaau, along the island"s east coast, shipper Peter Houle, president of Hawaiian Rainbow Produce, demonstrated why it"s impossible to mechanize the island"s papaya harvest.
As visitors stood beneath rows of stick-thin trees 13 feet high, their fringe of green leaves shading the green fruit hugging each trunk, Houle said papayas are harvested with long aluminum or bamboo poles.
The trees are cut down after three years when the yield drops dramatically and they become too tall to harvest and spray evenly.
"From January to March, prices are up because production is limited," he said. "When production peaks, from October to December, nobody wants our fruit."
But the chemical engineer sees lots of potential for the industry. His 45,000-square-foot packing house alone has room for five more heat treatment chambers, he said, and stringent quality controls allow him to trace every fruit in every box back to the field.
"If we pick on Sunday, it"s on retail shelves in L.A. on Wednesday," Houle said.
He urged importers to be as specific as possible when purchasing papayas to ensure they get the quality and sweetness they want, which will encourage growers to improve.
"Tell buyers you"ll only receive a quarter or half break (in color)," said Houle, who also recommended retailers buy a refractometer to quickly analyze the sweetness of the fruit they receive.
Importer Edwin See, president of San Francisco-based Kiems Produce Co. Inc., said his Chinese customers buy papaya for its health benefits and prefer the small Hawaiian fruit for its size and because it"s grown in the U.S.
"Everybody knows that the quality of U.S. produce is better," said See.
Papaya specialist Homero Levy de Barros, president of HLB Specialties in Pompano Beach, Fla., said he was impressed with the taste and with the growers he met, and suggested Hawaii market its niche papayas as the best in the world, hand-picked and hand-packed in a special box.
Yonemura also sees potential in producing value-added products from the 3 million pounds of sweet, edible fruit culled annually at packinghouses because of a slight deformity.
After test-marketing IQF Dream frozen papaya cubes in senior"s homes, he said he"d like to see them in school snack programs.
"We need to introduce kids to the taste of papaya," he said.