Hong Kong is throwing away its chance to enter the growing mainland market for organic produce by allowing farmers to grow genetically modified papaya from today, local farmers warn.
The city's Genetically Modified Organisms (Control of Release) Ordinance aims to protect local biodiversity by preventing the release of GM species into the local environment. It prohibits all GM crops.
But the regulation that goes into effect today waives the prohibition on growing GM papayas and lifts the ban on imports of two commercially grown GM papaya varieties.
Papaya is being exempted, the government says, because the GM form of the fruit is already present in Hong Kong and very hard to remove.
Farmers, for their part, are concerned not just about the uncertain, adverse impacts that the GM crop may have on the environment and people. They also argue that the change will lead to the uncontrolled proliferation of GM papaya and the contamination of the conventional papaya crop.
'Are we going to turn Hong Kong into a testing ground for GM species? Will the government introduce new exemptions any time they find other species already present here?' asked Leung Pun-kin, an organic farmer based in Yuen Long.
The exemption has stirred up huge controversy among local organic farms and their supporters. They accuse lawmakers of being preoccupied with other political matters, and failing to take the time to vet the regulation before the deadline passed.
Now growers fear some organic farms may be forced to stop growing papaya because any contamination found on their land could lead to loss of their certification status - hurting their business in other crops as well. Eventually, consumers will also be unable to enjoy locally grown, organic papayas, they say.
In response to their concerns, environmental officials have assured farmers that GM papayas will not alter the biodiversity of Hong Kong, since GM papaya genes cannot jump to plants of other species.
Developed in the 1980s, GM papaya was created to resist the ringspot virus, and first grown commercially in Hawaii in 1998.
But the officials acknowledge that cross-pollination does occur between GM and non-GM papaya.
That risk does exist in Hong Kong, which already has a large population of papaya trees - over 350,000, kept by casual and career farmers.
About 70 per cent are believed to be genetically modified. But most farmers do not know if their papaya are contaminated with the GM variety.
Removing these trees is not feasible, officials argue, because it would create a huge nuisance for the public and affect the livelihoods of those who depend on them. Further, it would be too expensive to test each tree to ascertain its genetic status.
They point out that any contamination would be confined to a tree's seeds - the mother tree and the fruit would remain GM-free. But if contaminated seeds are released, the trees and fruits they generate will be genetically modified.
Augustine Lo Yat-man learned that his farm had been contaminated by GM papaya half a year ago, when he tried to get an organic certification - a useful label for marketing farm produce.
His application was rejected because one of the two papaya samples taken from his land was found to be GM-positive.
He had to remove all his papaya trees and pay the HK$1,400 cost of the test.
'The payment is clearly a penalty imposed by the certification body to deter organic farmers from growing papaya because of the high risks.'
Lo questions the official logic behind the regulation. Instead of offering a blanket exemption, he believes all existing GM papaya trees should be removed and replaced with GM-free ones.
He said Hong Kong would miss a golden opportunity to rejuvenate its agriculture by growing organic papaya and tapping into the growing market for it.
'We should do what the mainland can't do, and our strength is definitely in producing organic, GM-free, quality agricultural produce.
'One day mainlanders might come not just for our baby formula, but also for our papaya,' Lo said.
Hong Kong imported 6,500 tonnes of papaya last year. About a third was from the mainland and 7 per cent from the United States. GM fruit made up half the mainland imports and 90 per cent of those from the US.
Professor Jonathan Wong Woon-chung, who runs the Hong Kong Organic Resource Centre, the city's only certification body for organic farms, agreed that the testing fee might discourage farmers from growing papaya.
But it was fair to levy the fee from farms that failed the GM test, he said, because the centre bore the cost if no genetic modification was found.
'We are not trying to stop them from growing non-GM papaya, but some farmers might not want to take the risks,' he said, adding that farmers must remove all GM plants to retain their certification.
Wong, an expert adviser to the government on the new exemptions, said the law balances the interests of organic farms and those who are growing GM papayas.
'There is no perfect solution in this case,' he said.
There was no scientific proof that GM papaya was unsafe either to eat or for the environment, he said.
But Lo insists that a precautionary ban on the GM crop is necessary because no one can tell for sure how it may affect the species' evolution.
The proportion of papaya trees in Hong Kong that are believed to already be genetically modified