Whenever I write about genetically modified crops — the shorthand GMO is commonly used, which stands for genetically modified organism — I usually get feedback from members of the anti-GMO crowd. The comments range from the uninformed, about how Americans will never stand for them in our food, which is ridiculous because they’ve been there for 20 years and now the lion’s share of corn and soybeans are genetically modified; to the unrealistic, who say they will never, ever make their way into fruits and vegetables.
I was reminded of this the other day in talking on the phone with a staff scientist for Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. First off, just the fact that I found his name associated with the research I was interested in — about how they’re wiping out Pierce’s disease in grapevines, which you can read about here — struck me. I don’t know about you, but for me the name “Los Alamos” has always been associated with the Manhattan Project and black and white movies of nuclear detonations.
I asked about that, and the scientist, Goutam Gupta, said Los Alamos has been doing bioscience research from the beginning, when they began to investigate the effects of radiation on living organisms. More recently, they have become heavily engaged in bioenergy research such as on ethanol, and they employ two scientists focused on trying to come up with transgenic plants from which they can more easily derive glucose, the main stumbling block to ethanol production.
But getting back to the fruit research, and how they managed to kill Xylella fastidiosa, the bacteria responsible for Pierce’s disease, the kiss of death for grapevines. Gupta and his colleagues engineered a gene containing a bit of human genetic material, and inserted it into the grapevine. Having heard often enough from critics complaining about “Frankenfoods,” alarm bells immediately went off in my head. But Gupta, unperturbed, explained that they only used the human genetic material because the human genome had been previously mapped and they knew where to get what they needed. Once the grape genome is sequenced, which is expected soon, they will use genetic material from grapes. To which I replied, quite sensibly: “Wow.”
Then I immediately thought of another currently incurable disease in another important fruit crop, citrus greening, or huanglongbing. The disease has wreaked havoc in the orange groves of Florida as well as other parts of the world. It immediately leapt to mind because it has most recently been found, for the first time, in California where I live. Fortunately it has not been found in the San Joaquin Valley citrus belt, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, where about 80% of the nation’s fresh-market orange crop is grown. Gupta, who was a few minutes late for the interview because he was on a two-hour conference call, explained that citrus greening was precisely the topic of that call, as he is co-chair of the Citrus Health Response Program.
Hanging up, I thought about how we might have practical, commercially viable answers to these menacing diseases facing our fruit crops in the not-too-distant future. I also thought how even the most entrenched Luddite is going to have a hard time saying sure, we can save our nation’s fruit crops, but we’re going to sit back and do nothing. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in agriculture, and the course of human history at large, it’s that science marches on.