For much of the world, papayas may not necessarily be a favorite but for those of us who do like it, we really do. As sad as this might sound for some, the papaya from Hawaii would have become extinct if not for genetic engineering. Faced with the Papaya Ring Spot Virus (PRSV) epidemic in 1985, University of Hawaii researchers knew that if nothing out of the ordinary was done, the entire papaya industry in Hawaii could be wiped out. Fortunately for the tropical fruit some of us hold dear to, the group of university researchers were able to develop genetically engineered papayas with resistance to the virus, via the isolating and sequencing of the coat protein (CP) gene of PRSV as described in a American Phytopathological Society publication.
Such a change would protect the transgenic plant against damage caused by the virus, and then adding it to the embryogenic calli of nontransgenic Sunset papaya via the use of a gene gun. The product would subsequently be selected and regenerated, producing transformed plants with the CP gene in their genome.
Despite the wonderful benefits transgenic papaya can bring to the table, issues relating to intellectual property continue to surface. For instance, Greenpeace Southeast Asia claims that the secrecy surrounding US patents on Thai genetically engineered papaya as well as patents awaiting approval, adds to the unknown risks genetically grown papayas pose to the Thai farmers. Apart from that, activists are claiming that Cornell Research Foundation, the research body which filed the patent for transgenic papayas, is stealing Thai property since the CP gene sequence is in actuality, acquired from the Thai PRSV isolate. As such, Greenpeace laments that it does not make sense to label Thai farmers who grow genetically engineered papayas as criminals of intellectual property rights infringement. Furthermore, they claim Thailand’s Department of Agriculture has not signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Cornell regarding its intellectual property rights over Thai genetically engineered papaya and that royalty fees should not be charged.
For a fruit with no wild relatives substantially known at this point in time, let alone twenty-five years ago, the concept of genetic engineering to save a fruit from extinction may offer a strong justification to some people who are against the use of genetic modification.
The anti-GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) folks can range from the hugely supportive of the total ban of GMOs, to the guys who deem GMOs different from the traditional produce and solely want the labeling of GMOs to be enacted as a law. As genetic modification is concerned, we humans have all along been eating human caused genetically modified foods since agriculture began in the Fertile Crescent. (Also known as the cradle of civilization, the Fertile Crescent is where early agriculture started with the wild progenitors to emmer wheat, einkorn, barley, flax, chickpea, lentils etc. The wild progenitors were in general selectively crossed with each other and their offspring were subsequently selected for desirable phenotypic traits before being selfed, propagated in large numbers, leading to the common cultivars we use in this modern day and age.)
At least according to an article titled “Are Engineered Foods Evil?” featured on Scientific American, if we look at our bread we eat for breakfast each day, we would be looking at a product that was derived from a human-engineered plant, which in its natural state does not produce seeds that scatter and would not subjectively be able to survive on its own in the wild. Like what Dr. Joseph Hotchkiss, a Professor of Food Science and Toxicology at Cornell University would say, virtually all of our foods have been genetically modified. “If you take the apple, for example, there are literally dozens of varieties of apples. How did we get those dozens of varieties? We genetically modified the apple through conventional selective breeding. We crossed one kind of apple with another apple, and we produced very different apples—different color, different flavor, different functions. What’s different now is that we have some new technologies, some new techniques to do it.”
To say that genetic engineering is completely different from traditional plant breeding would be incorrect as genes from one plant and another plant can cross with each other during fertilization to produce offspring with recombinant DNA genome.
One of the biggest issues many educated anti-GMO folks are concerned about is the transgene acquired from a donor organism unrelated to the targeted organism. For instance, the common genetically modified corn has a gene from a soil-inhabiting bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis which, when successfully injected into the targeted corn plant, produces a protein that effectively kills agricultural pests notably the Lepidoptera larvae and caterpillars. The technology behind this transformation is nothing new, as gene gun or agrobacterium-mediated transformation has been successfully tested and was put to use decades ago.
Normal breeding can produce the same type of risks, just as any other genetic or other kinds of breeding can.
While many are concerned that the transgene obtained varies from each GMO crop to the next, it up to us to decide if it is safe to say that the United States Department of Agriculture regulates the production of a GM crop before commercialization, ensuring that quality tested produce are being brought onto our grocery store shelves.