Sweet Success of Biotech Corn, Squash and Papaya

Sweet Success of Biotech Corn, Squash and Papaya

August 1, 2014
Food Quality & Nutrition 

Sweet corn, squash and papaya are popular summer foods in North America, but without biotechnology thousands of tonnes of these crops would be lost every year to insects and disease.

Plant biotechnology has been used to improve U.S. squash resistance to up to three problematic viruses. Virus-infected plants bear squash that are distorted and discolored, making the produce unmarketable. While biotech protection does not prevent all viruses, it does dramatically reduce the incidence of virus infection and yield loss. U.S. growers, especially in the east, find that virus-resistant biotech squash varieties offer some of the greatest protection against crop losses.

Similarly, virus-resistant biotech papayas – the only biotech fruit currently sold in the United States – have completely saved production in Hawaii, where more than 90 percent of the nation’s papayas are grown. Papaya ringspot virus (PRSV) was discovered in Hawaii in the 1940s, virtually eliminating large-scale production and wiping out papaya trees on Oahu and forcing the industry to relocate to Hawaii Island, where it thrived. By the 1980s 95 percent of the state’s papaya was produced on Hawaii Island as researchers looked for ways to combat PRSV. In 1999, the first biotech virus-resistant papayas – developed through a public research project – were commercially grown in Hawaii and today they account for the three quarters of the total Hawaiian papaya crop. Without the introduction of the biotech variety, the Hawaiian papaya industry would have been completely wiped out.

Sweet corn can also be improved through biotechnology to protect it against damaging insects, allowing farmers to reduce crop protection product applications while increasing yields. The Bt proteins in these corn varieties are an environmentally-friendly way to control insects because they only target pests and not beneficial insects. By reducing insect pest damage, levels of a naturally-occurring, harmful mold are minimized.

Sweet corn, squash and papayas are among the first examples of what biotechnology can do for fruits and vegetables. Future possibilities are endless as scientists turn more to biotechnology for targeted, safe and environmentally sound solutions to agricultural pests and viruses.