So why do farmers need biotechnology?
If you look closely at the image above, you can see tiny rings on the skin of the papaya. It looks like no big deal but in reality it’s the most dreadful thing a farmer can find. It’s caused by a little bug called the leafhopper. It flies around fields and takes little tastes of plants only to infect it with the virus. One could spray for these critters but once a plant is bit, sprays are ineffective.
Beneath that healthy looking plant is a disease that slowly weakens the it over time. Many farmers would see these rings on their fruit and think nothing of chopping down a tree with lots of good looking fruit on it. These trees are loaded with papayas. It’s money sitting on those trunks. The leaves show no sign of disease so a threat doesn’t appear imminent.
As time goes on, the virus count starts to increase in the plant and the leaves eventually become mottled and disfigured which impairs photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is how a plant converts light into food. Impaired leaves can’t produced food for the plant. That affects the trees’ ability to produce fruits. As the disease progresses, fruits become more covered with the ringspot. The quality of the fruit also declines as a result. The papayas are unsaleable as a result of the virus.
So what’s a farmer to do? The most economical thing to initiate is killing the virus infected trees to prevent a vector source. The other thing that can be done is trying to breed a stronger plant to resist the virus. One has to have the good plants that can be crossed if any exist. If there aren’t any signs of virus resistance found, other things are tried. Cross protection was trialed by using the weak version of the cucumber mosaic virus to inoculate the plant. The problem with cross protection was the varied production in the papaya trees and inconsistent fruit quality. Farmers did not want this option.
There isn’t a whole lot a farmer can do at this point. Some farmers move field locations to escape these pesky bugs but that’s also risky because it means clearing more forests and no certainty that the virus will not hit. All the hours of preparing a field with clearing it, setting in the irrigation, fencing it, and other work needed isn’t guaranteed that you’ll get anything.
For the papaya farmers of Hawaii, there really wasn’t much left in terms of options to grow their crops. Papayas are really a main staple fruit for many of our locals. For decades, people would line up at the small Chinatown markets for my dad’s arrival with his cases. I learned how dedicated these old folks were when I had to do a delivery there and was 10 minutes late. I got scolded and canes shaken at me for not being there on time. Then when I helped to unpack the cases, they came at me like a mob of gray and white flurries of herbal smelling hobblers. They were determined to get their papaya. Some were so determined that if they didn’t get the one they wanted, they whacked their fellow customer’s hand with their hand carved wooden canes. I didn’t know whether to laugh or be afraid of the mob. Even at the local Times Supermarket, retirees would wait outside to watch for his delivery truck and alert the produce folks when it came. Many customers were dedicated to supporting our farm by choosing his papayas with the distinctive Kamiya papaya sticker. We have made so many friends through the selling of our papayas over the years. These people are so appreciative and supportive for our farm and we are thankful that we can provide these labors of love to them.
So when you’re crops are failing and dying, your customers whom you’ve known for years, are left with nothing. Their favorite comfort food is no longer available. It’s hard to turn them away and tell them that you have nothing. With no income from the farm, it means the family farm needs supplemented income since leases, utilities, maintenance, and other costs remain. A farmer’s livelihood is in danger. My dad always knew this about farming and worked a day job as a result. Farming was his after 3 p.m. job. It didn’t matter if he worked some 12 hours a day, 6-7 days a week. This is what he loved. So many other farmers share his passion that few people can really appreciate much of the time.
To hear that the disease might threaten my dad and brother’s farm gave me that feeling of sinking again. My brother said that he felt really sick finding the disease in the fields again and had a flashback of going with my dad and taking the machete to rogue out tree after tree. He almost fell panicked by seeing the rings on his fruits. I felt so afraid knowing that maybe something really bad is happening that the virus mutated or something else is happening. Luckily, he saved all of the trees affected and took them to get sampled at the lab to see what was happening. It turned out that all of the infected trees were the Kamiya type that weren’t crossed so they were non-GMO.
When people go on the social media and start telling me that any farmer can go organic and should, I know that they know nothing about farming. They know nothing about losing your livelihoods to diseases. Their farm life is based on what they read and not real life experience. They can spout all kinds of “facts” and try to dictate how farming should be but they know nothing of the realities of what it takes and why farmers want science to sustain them. The story of the Hawaii papaya is a great example of how science saved a crop and can even helps save other farmers’ crops. It’s a tool that we simply can’t dismiss with bad information and misconceptions.
What’s even more disturbing is that a key University of Hawaii professor is telling his fellow anti-GM activists that the coat protein used in papayas are pesticides which makes it subject to safety issue. I thought that their accusations that Dr. Gonsalves created the PRSV virus to make GM necessary was bad but this is even worse. Even alleging that papaya farmers are selling an untested, unsafe product is their continued attack against small farmers.
If you want farmers to be sustainable, we’ve got to restore our faith in science and the experts who help them grow our food.