Genetically Modified Crops

GM Papaya Takes on Ringspot Virus and Wins

By Stocstad


Genetically modified (GM) papaya saved Hawaii’s papaya industry from devastation from the ringspot virus, a pathogen that deforms and eventually kills conventional trees.

Dennis Gonsalves, a plant virologist at Cornell, returned to his native Hawaii for a visit only to realize that the main papaya region of Puna was being taken over by the ringspot virus. Standing up to the virus, Gonsalves created a GM papaya that since 1978 has a track record of safety. Studies showed that infected areas with conventional trees were mainly barren while GM trees were large and fruit bearing. Richard Manshardt took Gonsalves efforts to the next level by crossing the GM papaya with a high-yielding papaya. Now 80% of the papaya industry in Hawaii is virus resistant.

Despite this success, and the applications it could have in other developing countries as a “pro-poor crop”, critics are saying that GM Papayas are infecting conventional trees through genetic contamination, and are more susceptible to a disease caused by a pathogen called phytophthora. The Global Justice Ecology Project's claim that the GM papaya had

“caused an economic and ecological disaster for organic, conventional, and GM papaya farmers alike”

might be ill-founded considering that there is no clear evidence that these allegations are true.

Stocstad states that the acceptance of genetically modified crops becomes a politically and economically driven decision. Countries like Brazil will continue to grow conventional trees because their distribution channels in Europe won’t accept GM trees. In contrast, Mexico will switch because the USA permits such GM fruit. Other countries like Thailand will be swayed by Greenpeace protesters to stick to conventional trees but will also be sway to produce GM fruit if that is what China, their competitor, is doing.

Popular belief is that once GM crops catch on, it will spread like wildfire all over the world as an acceptable means of production.

The Role of Monsanto in Meeting the Food Needs of a Growing Population

With a human population that will continue to grow at least through the middle of this century, and the potential for a decrease in the amount of arable land as a result of climate change, it will be a serious challenge to increase agricultural production to feed everybody.

Current estimates are that food production must double in the next 50 years, and do so while using less land and less water. It is nearly impossible to see how this can be achieved with current crops and agriculture systems. Genetically modified organisms, such as those being developed by Monsanto (and competitors such as Dupont and Syngenta) may be our best hope to achieve this.

Innovation in seeds can be grouped into two categories. The first, which is known as selective breeding, has been in use for decades and was one of the driving forces behind the Green Revolution that increased agricultural yields in the mid 20th century. What has changed since then is the speed at which this can be done. Machines can now chip off a piece of a seed and analyze its genetic properties to predict what characteristics the full-grown plant will have. Only the most promising seeds are planted, and these are then cross-bred to further develop the ideal characteristics. In this way a seed can be specialized to grow in a particular climate or soil.

The second category is genetic modification, which involves identifying genetic traits with particular qualities and transplanting those traits into seeds to improve their performance. So far much of the research here has gone into pest and weed control. Monsanto is currently under fire due to the fact that this technology has enabled it to sell its seeds along with a particular weed control agent to which the seeds have immunity. This has greatly increased profits for Monsanto, and may have increased pesticide use overall.

However, current work is going into developing seeds with increased yields, more efficient use of nutrients (lower fertilizer requirements), and, perhaps most revolutionary, drought resistance. Drought resistant crops have an increased ability to take up water, and have lower water loss (transpiration), during photosynthesis. As water shortages are projected for many countries, Monsanto expects that they will be a huge commercial success.

Ultimately, technologies such as those being developed by Monsanto may be necessary to increase agricultural production without destroying the remaining natural land that exists. However, as always happens when the interests of profit-focused commercial entities intersect with the basic needs of society, this is certain to be a heated debate in the years to come.


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