On a summer day in 1997 Dennis Gonsalves, a plant pathologist at Cornell University, boarded a flight to Thailand with papaya plants in his carry-on luggage. He and his colleagues had spent a decade genetically altering the plants to resist a lethal virus called ringspot, which was destroying papaya crops worldwide. The technology was working in Hawaii—it eventually saved the state’s papaya industry—and officials at Thailand’s Department of Agriculture had asked Gonsalves to bring his plants to Thailand to transfer the technology to varieties there. It was urgent. Thailand had already lost half of its papayas, a staple food that many Thai people eat three times a day.
Gonsalves and his Thai colleague Vilai Prasartsee set up experiments at the Thai Department of Agriculture’s research station in Tha Pra in the northeast province Khon Kaen. Within two years, the group had grown rows of papaya trees nearly 100-percent resistant to the ringspot virus. "They were beautiful field trials," Gonsalves says.
In 2004 Gonsalves’ team was working toward regulatory approval when activists from Amsterdam-based Greenpeace broke into the site wearing respiratory masks and pulled the fruit off the trees. Pre-alerted members of the media snapped pictures, and the activists accused the research station of illegally distributing seeds. Two months later Thailand’s prime minister ordered the destruction of all genetically modified (GM) crops in the country and banned all GM field trials. Workers at the Tha Pra research station chopped down the papaya trees and buried them in pits.
The remainder of Gonsalves’ virus-resistant papaya seeds have sat in a locked refrigerator for the past five years as ringspot has decimated Thailand’s papayas. Villagers near the research station still ask Prasartsee for GM seeds, she says, but she cannot give them any. "I know in my heart that the northeast farmers would love to have this papaya," Gonsalves’ wife Carol recently wrote in a letter to him. Carol had worked in her husband’s lab, accompanying him to Tha Pra. "As I sit here writing, the sadness just envelops me, and tears are streaming down my face."
The extreme regulatory precaution taken by some developing countries like Thailand has thwarted the efforts of countless researchers who hoped to bring GM crops to hungry people. "The barriers have prevented scientists from making the impact they could have had," says Roger Beachy, president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Mo.
A global map of GM crops shows the world’s caution. Nearly 86 percent of all transgenic crops are grown in only four countries: Argentina (the second largest GM-crop grower in the world), Brazil, Canada and the United States (the world’s leading GM-crop grower). Europe’s lead in questioning the technology has influenced much of the rest of the world. "There’s a natural deference to the way Europe does things," says Robert Paarlberg, a political scientist at Wellesley College and author of Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa. Some African governments think they should do the same. Such governments also fear that if they grow transgenic crops, Europe will stop accepting their food exports. Although according to Sharon Bomer, Executive VP of the Food and Agriculture Division of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, attitudes are starting to change.
It is a fair concern since GM crops and foods remain controversial in the European Union (EU). In February 2009, in fact, EU experts came to a stalemate when asked to approve the planting of two kinds of GM corn. Nonetheless, a range of GM products—such as specific types of corn, cotton, soybeans and so on—are approved for use as food and feed. Recent news of genes from GM corn appearing in traditional crops in Mexico, however, will probably fan the GM hesitation in the EU.
In general, wealthy nations can get away with repudiating GM crops because they know they will remain well fed without new technology, says Paarlberg. Not so in developing countries. One-third of the African population is chronically hungry. China over the past few years has been tapping its rice stockpiles, and by 2020 it will have to increase its grain production by about 25 percent to feed its growing population.
Europe has rejected transgenic crops with tight regulations. But the barriers in developing countries are as much about under-regulation as over-regulation. Developing countries often lack the scientific expertise needed to draw up Euro-style biosafety laws. Without some kind of process in place, crop developers have no clear path for regulatory approval—effectively a ban on transgenic crops.
Meanwhile discouraged public-sector scientists in the United States have stopped asking for grants for field trials. "Many of us in academia have shied from attempting to develop products for the market and have stuck to conducting fundamental research because product development appears out of reach," Beachy says.
This downtrodden field needs a success story, says Gonsalves, who now works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "We just need one example," he says. The creators of Golden Rice hope to provide it. Golden Rice has been modified to contain vitamin A, and after eight years of political delays, field trials finally began in the Philippines in 2008. "We will prevail in this project, and we are going to get it to the people," declares Adrian Dubock, who is part of the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board.
To avoid situations like what Gonzalves faced, some research groups are taking a proactive approach. The Danforth Center, for example, has created a Biosafety Resource Center that is addressing regulatory concerns in tandem with their development of GM crops for developing countries.
For Vilai Prasartsee in Thailand, the barriers surrounding transgenic papaya, particularly the efforts of anti-GM activists, have been mentally exhausting, she says. This summer she plans to finish one last papaya project—a non-GM variety that shows some resistance to the ringspot virus. "I want to release these seeds to the farmers and then retire," she says. "I hope Greenpeace doesn’t come."
Which places around the globe are powering the success of biotech today?