Recombinant DNA Technology
Consider, for example, the cautionary tale of the Kona coffee industry in Hawaii, which in 2008 pushed the Hawaii County Council to ban the growing of recombinant DNA-modified beans on the Big Island. The growers felt that the use of the new technology would risk decades of building the reputation of Kona coffee as a brand. Beans developed using recombinant DNA technology may not qualify as “specialty coffee,” and therefore, it was feared that they would command a lower market price.
The industry may now be singing a different tune. Big Island coffee growers are facing a dire threat to their crops that didn’t exist four years ago: Infestations of the Coffee Berry Borer beetle, which evolves resistance to pesticidal sprays, were first discovered in Kona in 2010 and have now been confirmed in all parts of west Hawaii and in some other areas as well. Faced with the threat of devastation of their crops, the industry is now desperate for any measures to combat the beetle. Recombinant DNA technology has been widely and successfully used in corn, cotton, papaya, and other crops to introduce resistance to pests.
Hawaiian coffee farmers and their organizations should have heeded the positive example of the Rainbow variety of papaya, Hawaii’s fifth largest crop. By inserting a single gene from a virus into papayas, scientists have made them virus-resistant. Although the biological mechanism is different, the effect is similar to vaccination of people and animals using weakened or killed viruses. The recombinant DNA-modified Rainbow papaya has resurrected Hawaii’s $64 million-a-year industry, which was moribund 15 years ago because of the predations of papaya ringspot virus.
Wheat farming offers yet another example. By 2004, Monsanto, the world’s leader in the production of seeds for genetically engineered crops, had made substantial progress in the development of genetically engineered wheat varieties for North America. But suddenly in that year, the company scrapped its wheat program in large part because of opposition from North American grain merchants and growers.
European countries and Japan, which have traditionally imported about 45% of U.S. wheat exports, have been resistant to recombinant DNA-modified crops and food derived from them.
However, American growers and millers have had a change of heart. Wheat farming is a struggling industry in the United States, in large part because it has not received the technological boost from recombinant DNA technology that has hugely benefited the corn and soybean sectors. U.S. wheat acreage is down about one-third from its peak in the early 1980s, due to reduced profitability compared with alternative crops. Therefore, in 2006, a coalition of U.S. wheat industry organizations called for access to recombinant DNA-modified wheat varieties with enhanced traits, and a survey released in 2009 by the U.S. national association of wheat growers found that more than three-quarters of U.S. farmers wanted access to genetically improved varieties with resistance to pests, disease, drought, and frost.
Such varieties are important as plant scientists and farmers continue to battle diseases such as leaf rust, the world’s most common wheat disease, which can lead to yield loss of up to 20%. In Kansas, the heart of the U.S. wheat belt, for example, leaf rust destroyed a shocking 14% of the wheat crop in 2007.
Apple growers should take note of the lessons learned by others the hard way. There is little doubt consumers will like and even pay a premium for the nonbrowning trait in apples. Instead of fighting the introduction of this improved, consumer-friendly product (as well as others that could follow), the apple growers’ associations should sow the seeds of greater sales and security of their harvest by mounting a truthful, positive ad campaign to trumpet the new advances in molecular biology applied to their products. They should bear in mind that technophobia often breeds poisoned fruit.