An unexpectedly popular papaya protest

Thais in Bangkok know a bargain when they see one: Free genetically modified papayas, courtesy of Greenpeace

Published August 29, 2007 11:59PM (EDT)

Whether you consider genetically modified papaya to be a fruit of Satan or salvation from a dreaded papaya-annihilating virus, it's hard not to chuckle at reports of what transpired at a Greenpeace-organized protest in Bangkok, Thailand, earlier this week.

From the Bangkok Post, via the very pro-all-things-genetically-modified GMO Pundit:

Greenpeace's protest against the lifting of a ban on open-field trials of genetically-modified (GM) papaya yesterday was met with an unexpected reaction from a crowd of onlookers.

Passers-by took matters, and tonnes of papayas dumped by Greenpeace, into their own hands, and ran off. The environmental group dumped the papayas in front of the Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry yesterday to make its objection to the lifting of the ban loud and clear to the government.

It was the second protest about the controversial issue in five days after reports the ministry will today seek cabinet approval for the lifting of the ban on open-field trials of transgenic crops. But this time, after the dumping, people flocked to load up on the free papayas, ignoring the environmental organization's campaign against the dangers of GM fruit -- a message Greenpeace has been trying to get through to the government and the public for years.

While in some respects the GM papaya contretemps in Thailand is similar to other struggles over genetically modified organisms -- i.e., there is much ado about whether potential safety hazards to human health have been properly investigated -- there are also some critical differences that separate the genetically modified papaya from your typical Monsanto creation.

Transgenic papaya was developed in Hawaii largely by publicly funded researchers in response to a specific threat -- a rapidly spreading plague of "papaya ringspot virus" that came close to completely wiping out Hawaii's commercial production. Proponents of GM papaya in Hawaii say that without it, there would be no papaya crop at all today.

And yet, as the Honolulu Advertiser reported in 2006, Hawaiian papaya production has plummeted in recent years, in part because at least one major market, Japan, forbids the import of genetically modified papayas. One might well ask, what's the good of saving the papaya if in doing so you destroy the market for it?

Not that such considerations seemed to bother any papaya-bargain hunters in Bangkok on Tuesday.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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