I’m on Elephant Journal today, doing a Q&A with the scientist behind the Hawaiian transgenic papaya. I’ve excerpted the beginning of the interview (and it’s a bit lengthy, so be forewarned) and hope you’ll read it with an open mind. And please ask questions! I’ll do my best to get answers for you.
Stop by the farmers’ market in Hilo, Hawaii, and you’ll find knobby cherimoyas, avocadoes the size of eggplants, and mounds of papayas, sunset-fleshed and as smooth and sweet as custard.
That wasn’t always the case. Back in the 90s, Hawaiian papaya farmers were faced with devastation from ringspot virus, a plant virus that reduced papaya production by 50% within six years and just kept spreading. Small farmers faced losing their livelihoods when one plant pathologist developed a virus-resistant variety called the Rainbow and distributed the seeds to struggling farmers – for free. Fourteen years later, Hawaii’s small papaya farmers are flourishing.
There’s a lot to like about this story –the altruism of the researcher, the success of independent local farmers. But there’s one detail that could change everything about how you see it: the Rainbow papaya is genetically modified. A gene from the ringspot virus was inserted into the papaya, where it acts like a built-in vaccine against the virus. In other words, it’s Frankenfood. Or is it?
I say GMO, you think: Monsanto, Big Ag, lobbyists, corporate interests. But none of these played a major role in the GM Rainbow papaya. And for me, that led to an important realization. Genetic engineering technology is not the same thing as Monsanto/ Big Ag policy. It’s a tool. And like all tools, it can be used for good or bad ends.
I’m a skeptic, so I scoured the web for info – agricultural news sites, activist sites, USDA releases, science journals, and blogs. Then I took my questions to the man who developed the Rainbow, Dr. Dennis Gonsalves, retired Professor Emeritus of Plant Pathology at Cornell and now the director of the USDA’s Pacific Basin Agricultural Center. He’s a straight shooter, detailing the successes and challenges of the project with peer reviewed articles and independently verifiable facts. Halfway through our exchange, it hits me: why shouldn’t we always address our science questions to scientists, not lobbyists or activists?
In that spirit, I’ve included his answers to my questions below.
Q: How did you get started with your work on the transgenic papaya?
I was born and raised on a sugar plantation on Hawaii Island but never aspired to be a scientist until I worked as a technician under Dr. Eduardo Trujillo of the University of Hawaii. He let me loose trying to figure out what was causing a disease of papaya and that experience convinced me that I wanted to be a plant pathologist. Dr. Trujillo was a mentor and an inspiration to me as he would periodically to tell me: “Dennis, don’t just be a test tube scientist, but do things to help people.” […] The feeling of joy was incredible when I first inoculated the transgenic papaya in the greenhouse and it showed resistance to PRSV [papaya ringspot virus]. However, that was nice science but how could we translate it to helping people? Naturally, the challenge came when PRSV invaded the Puna district and within a couple of years the Hawaiian papaya industry was in deep trouble. We had a potential solution, had published some nice papers, but did we have the ‘guts’ to try to help the industry survive? We had never attempted to deregulate a transgenic product, as the common thought was that this was the purview of the big companies. But somebody had to do it, and thus we got out of our ‘comfort zone’ in order to help the farmers.
Q: Did you really give out GE (genetically engineered) papaya seeds for free to farmers?
The seeds were initially distributed free to the growers because I believe the industry (Papaya Administrative Committee) got some grant funds from the state to produce the seeds. Now, the industry produces the seeds and sells them at cost to the growers.
Q: What non-GE methods were used to attempt to combat ringspot virus on Hawai’i?
People have been trying to do classical breeding to get resistance for a long time. In Carica papaya, there is no resistance. Some tolerance is found and people have been trying to incorporate these in some lines. The tolerance is ‘quantitative’ so it can get diluted. Bottom line, this has not worked for Hawaiian papaya.
Crops rotation, lower densities, etc. have been tried but they do not work because the virus is rapidly transmitted by aphids. One way that can work economically is to go into virgin areas where it is far from the nearest virus infected papaya, and continually pull out trees as symptoms develop on the new planting. […] Naturally, the more isolated you are the longer for the virus to ‘find’ the papaya field. One question is: Environmentally, is it better to clear virgin forest or land to plant papaya than growing virus resistant GE papaya where papaya growing areas already exist?
Photo credit: leahleaf