The man behind the Rainbow

The curious case of the genetically modified papaya.

By Jennifer Mo.

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 percent 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.

Dr. Gonsalves (image originally posted on elephant journal)

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.

Het volledige artikel met interview vind je op biofortified.org 

Transgenic potato resistant to virus

Argentine scientists have developed a genetically modified potato, resistant to potato virus Y (PVY). PVY infections can be devastating, reducing crop yields by 30 to 80 per cent in the most severe cases. The virus causes mottling discoloration of the leaves, affecting photosynthesis which leads to plant stunting. In severe cases, potatoes display a black ringspot on their peel (tuber necrosis) that renders them unmarketable.

Online artikel hier.