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Feds offer a rare chance to weigh in on GMOs

Sarah Evanega

There is no GMO crop I enjoy talking about more than the Rainbow papaya. Dennis Gonsalves, then a Cornell research professor, developed it for Hawaii farmers back in the mid-1990s, when the ringspot virus was devastating their fields. Even Michael Pollan — an implacable critic of genetic engineering — concedes the point and “gives you the papaya” as a likable GMO. 

What’s so likeable about the Rainbow papaya? Aside from the fact that it single-handedly saved the family-farm papaya industry in Hawaii, it upends nearly every argument against GMOs:

-  It was developed specifically for small-scale farmers, with a philanthropic vision to benefit growers in tropical regions across the developing world;

- It addresses a very real agricultural threat;

- It is effective, standing up to the papaya ringspot virus under real-world epidemic conditions with no sign yet of weakening resistance;

- The plants produce no new protein that raises allergen alarms;

- Hermaphrodite papaya trees rarely outcross, so no one can complain about “contamination” due to pollen drift;

- The technology poses no risks to the environment or to human health;

- The intellectual property rights were cleared for use by small-scale farmers; and

- Farmers can — and do — save and replant the seeds year after year. 

In retrospect, however, the most remarkable aspect of the virus-resistant Rainbow papaya is this: Nearly 20 years after its release, it is still the only commercially available “GMO” developed by public sector scientists anywhere in the US. 

So why haven’t scientists in the U.S. land grant system continued Gonsalves’ early success and continued to innovate using the powerful tools of genetic engineering (GE)?  Why haven’t we seen many more GE products come out of agri-academic powerhouses like Cornell and UC Davis over the past 20 years?

And does this lag support the insistent criticism leveled by some that “the technology hasn’t lived up to its promise”?

I don't think so. The hindrances lie not in the technology, or the researchers, but the politics and process. In my view, public sector scientists are working in a uniquely unsupportive political and regulatory environment, one that singles out their work for special consideration unjustified by any provable degree of risk. The burdensome regulatory framework — together with a hostile climate fostered by the politicization of a breeding tool known in most households as “GMO” — has meant that only the biggest corporations can navigate the system.

However, we now have an opportunity to correct this. Nearly 20 years after Puna district farmers on the Big Island of Hawaii witnessed field trials that demonstrated the lifesaving potential a public sector-produced papaya could have for their industry, we find ourselves at a new juncture. 

This month, the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy is asking for our input, comments and case studies.  They want to know what we think is wrong with the U.S. biosafety framework and how it can be improved to be made more fit for purpose. Now is the time when scientists across the U.S. land grant system can speak up and share their accounts of how the playing field must be leveled so that public sector scientists can innovate with all the tools at hand to deploy solutions much needed in agriculture. 

Looking forward, we particularly need to ensure that the same mistakes of over-regulation are not imposed on the emerging breeding technologies. These new tools have great potential to ensure that the next generation of Dennis Gonsalveses can innovate to address the real-world needs of farmers in the decades ahead.

It’s time to stop fussing about FoIAs and FTOs and make our voices heard in support of rational, science-based biosafety regulations that will allow publicly-funded science to flourish so we can tackle the challenges of the future while improving the environment and protecting public health.

Let’s seize this moment, so we can finally begin to add to the list of likable GMOs created by the U.S. public sector for the farmers who grow our food.

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