What GMO Crops Can Learn From Papaya

What do bananas, citrus, coffee, and cocoa have in common? A few things actually, all of these crops are huge contributors to the global agriculture, food, and beverage industries, they are primarily grown in developing countries, each crop faces impending threats of disease and environmental stress, and all of these crops could learn a few things from the papaya.

Farmers have always selectively bred their crops for the most desirable and hearty traits.  This process used to take years even decades to yield genetically superior fruits and vegetables, but now just when the technology and the need have reached a tipping point – the tide of public opinion has squelched the ability of farmers and geneticists to save their crops.

What can other crops learn from Papaya?

The near extinction of papapya and GM-heroics of geneticist Dennis Gonsalves in the 1990’s flew mostly under the radar.  Today, nearly 90% of papayas produced globally are a genetically modified (GM) variety that Gonsalves developed to combat ringspot virus.  The general sentiment towards GM crops is overwhelmingly negative outside the scientific community, so this begs the question: how did papaya get away with it? And how can other crops in danger of being wiped out by disease follow suit?

  • Industry Adoption: Gonsalves’ motivation to save the papaya industry came from his ties to the importance of the crop in his native-state of Hawaii.  Production of papaya fell 50% between 1993 and 2006 on the Hawaiian Islands due to the spread of ringspot virus.  Although the introduction of seeds for genetically resistant papaya variety in 1998 was not received without pushback – half of the papayas grown on Hawaii were GM within two years (and 90% of production in 10 years).  Farmers chose the survival of their crop and livelihoods over the tide of public opinion – and it worked.  This should be a boon to citrus growers facing the wrath of citrus greening disease (HLB), which has affected more than 100 billion citrus trees globally.  Lessons learned from papaya reason that the value of saving an entire crop industry outweigh the risk of violating the fickle leanings of consumer sentiment.
  • Moving Quickly: Gonsalves made the GM seeds commercially-available to farmers at cost.  He was studying papaya ringspot virus at Cornell University a decade before the threat became lethal to industry in Hawaii – so when the disease began to proliferate across papaya crops Gonsalves and his team were ready.  The first GM papaya seeds were planted in a trial plot in 1998, in 11 months all of the non-GM control papaya was infected with ringspot while mature GM trees would go on to produce 125,000 pounds of fruit per acre each year.  Industry leaders were ready to move when the threat hit, much like developers of Cavendish banana are prepared now with plants engineered with a pepper gene that resists Fusarium wilt.  In contrast to papaya however, the GMO scarlet letter keeps resistant varieties out of reach to subsistence banana farmers whose crops may suffer the same fate the Gros Michel variety of bananas did in the 1960’s (extinction).

The threat of disease is just one of many forces that can lead to crop failure.  However, the success story of papaya shines a ray of hope on value crops aiming to stave off devastation with genetic modification.  Consider the coffee industry which is the economic livelihood of over 25 million people, 90% of whom live in developing countries; or the cocoa industry which is comprised of more than 5 million family farms, mostly in West Africa.  Crop failure for either of these industries could lead to nearly $100 billion in economic loss, while strategic planning and biotechnology could easily intervene to deliver the industry-saving genetic tweak.  Papayas, when compared with other value crops account for a relatively small production volume globally (12.67 million metric tons annually), while regions and families surely would have felt the collapse of the industry, the aftershock would have been comparatively minor globally.  Consider in contrast the economic fallout of the four aforementioned crops in the event of catastrophe:

The tide of public opinion has been swept up in misinformation about GMO crops, misinformation that could stagnate biotechnology developments with the potential to save whole crops and industries.  There is a seemingly insurmountable chasm separating public opinion and scientific data validating the safety and benefits of GMO crops.  Papaya has shown that the transition to GM, though not without bumps and bruises – is possible for other crops facing threats like disease proliferation and environmental stress.  If scientific data isn’t compelling enough to tip the scale, perhaps the almighty dollar will be.  Crops under threat from disease and environmental stress represent huge global agriculture and trade markets in the tens to hundreds of billions of dollars.  Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world after crude oil – these crops need to be protected if food companies intend to keep making and selling the products – like orange juice, chocolate bars, and coffee drinks – that are cash cows today. Not only are small shareholder farmers at risk (which should be of concern to agriculture companies who will experience erosion at the margins as crop acreage depletes) but also large food and beverage companies who will experience collapses of hugely profitable product lines if immediate action is not taken. Crop pressure is looming, but it is not too late to fund early stage research into crop varieties. The crops mentioned here are just a few representatives of agriculture segments that could topple global food and beverage corporations if funding and research are not devoted to developing disease and stress tolerant modified varieties. Readers whose products rely on these threatened crops have a narrow window, at best three years, to take the steps we’ve outlined and follow the example set by the papaya industry for long-term supply security.​ Science needs to move trends rather than relegating biotechnology developments to collecting dust on a shelf as consumer sentiment would have it. GM crops have failed to gain traction due to the pressure of public opinion, keeping modified varieties out of the hands of emerging economy growers who need them.  Consumers are driven by fear, hype, and emotion; global agriculture innovation needs to be driven by reliable data and relentless advancement.  In this agricultural age, that means forging a path for modified crops to meet the needs of growers and mitigate crop pressures – and forcing a change of tide.

By: Jesse Papirio