Hawaii. Everyone wants to go, and the islands welcome visitors as tourism alone is a $16-billion industry and accounts for more than one fifth of the state’s economy. But in the late 1930s, the island of Oahu had an unwelcome visitor—one that would wreak havoc within 30 years and bring widespread devastation and huge economic loss: the papaya ringspot virus. By the 1950s, the plant pathogen was so abundant, that the amount of land used to grow papayas was reduced by 94 percent, and the once $17-million papaya industry was nearly cut in half. Noticing the massive discoloration and disfigurement of both fruit and tree, in an effort to save the crop future production was moved from Oahu to the Big Island’s Puna region. But, the efforts were unsuccessful. In 1992, the virus was rampant in commercial farms and three years later, production halted in Puna.
More than half of Hawaii’s total bearing acreage is represented by the rainbow papaya—all thanks to seed innovation and the introduction of a genetically modified organism(s).
A vaccine for fruit Fortunately, for nearly a decade, researchers and scientists at both Cornell University and the University of Hawaii had been working on a solution, a sort of plant “vaccine” that would cure the diseased fruit. And, by the late ‘90s, a hybrid of the yellow-flesh kapoho solos papaya and the red-fleshed sun-up papaya, was ready to be introduced to the farmers of Hawaii—meet, the rainbow papaya. Commercialized in ‘98, the rainbow papaya saw huge results and within four years the islands were bearing fruit at levels close to pre-ringspot invasion.
Whether you’re in favor of using GMOs or not, it isn’t a cut and dry issue.
What is a GMO? GMOs are genetically modified organisms where DNA is altered to enhance a desirable trait, and or, reduce a disadvantageous one. A few of the ways that GMOs are said to help farmers, consumers, and the environment are: Insect resistance helps farmers uses less pesticide.
Disease resistance [as in the case of the rainbow papaya] helps ensure a successful yield. Drought tolerance helps crops hold moisture better reducing the amount of irrigation needed. Herbicide tolerant crops let farmers target weeds as needed which means less tillage and therefore less carbon emissions, and reduced erosion. Enhanced nutritional value in soybeans [for example] have led to the development of longer lasting, trans-fat free cooking oil. Reduced bruising and non-browning traits have led to a reduction in food waste. Environmental impact of manufacturing is less [decreased water, electricity, and natural gas used] with the introduction of biotech corn into biofuel production.
Here in the U.S., there are 10 approved GMO crops, most of which become processed ingredients—like cornstarch and sugar.
And though many of these are modified for disease resistance, herbicide tolerance, drought tolerance, and insect resistance a few are also modified to be more aesthetically appealing. Here’s a list of the 10 GMO crops commercially available in the U.S., the year when they were approved, and the genetic trait(s) introduced:
- Squash 1995; diseases resistance—human consumption.
- Soybeans 1995; insect resistance and herbicide tolerance—animal feed, pet food, aquaculture, lecithin (essential fat), soy
- sauce, soy milk, tofu, soybean oil, monounsaturated fatty acid, building supplies and industrial uses such as biodiesel, ink, and
- Corn (feed) 1996; insect resistant, herbicide and drought resistance—animal feed, cereal ingredients, corn syrup, corn starch,
- corn oil, alcohol, ethanol and other industrial uses.
- Corn (sweet) 1996; herbicide tolerance and insect resistance—human consumption.
- Cotton 1997; herbicide tolerance and insect resistance—cotton seed oil, fiber, animal feed.
- Papaya 1997; disease resistance—human consumption.
- Canola 1998; herbicide tolerance—animal feed, cooking oil.
- Alfalfa 2006; herbicide tolerance—animal feed.
- Sugar beets 2001; herbicide tolerance—sugar and animal feed.
- Potato 2016; reduced bruising and black spots, non-browning, low acrylamide, blight resistance—human food consumption
- Apple 2017; non-browning—human food consumption