PUNA, Hawaii -- His shoes crunching through volcanic grit on the Big Island's eastern shore, Dennis Gonsalves walks into a grove of juvenile papaya trees. A renowned plant pathologist, Gonsalves eyes the bulbous green fruit stacked up the trees' trunks. In a few months, harvest will arrive, each tree shedding two or three papayas a week.
Working in the shadow of a volcano, farmers in Puna, the heart of Hawaii's papaya industry, harvest a bounty of healthy fruit each year. It's a far cry from 15 years ago, when a devastating virus swept through the groves. The trees withered. Their leaves grew to resemble craggy bird claws. The fruit was pockmarked with ring-shaped spots, hallmarks of infection. The island's papaya tradition seemed at an end.
Today, the trees' leaves are thick as a giant's fingers as they dance in the trade winds. The yellow-fleshed papaya will be sold to Los Angeles or San Francisco or fed to Honolulu's throngs. Stopping at one thriving specimen, Gonsalves cannot conceal his pride.
"This one here," he said, "you come six months from now, it'll be loaded with papaya."
A bit of paternal glow can be allowed. After all, Gonsalves invented the tree.
Nearly all of the papaya grown in Hawaii today is genetically engineered to resist the ringspot virus, a plague, named for its tell-tale brands, that once threatened to end the fruit's run on the islands. Developed by a team of academics led by Gonsalves, the papayas are the only modified fruit freely grown in the United States. And for more than a decade, they have stood alone as the only commercial biotech crop of any kind to be developed by public-sector scientists, not large corporations.
Call it the papaya paradox. While companies like Dupont and Monsanto have developed biotech varieties of commodities like corn, soybean and cotton, investments in improving the fruits and vegetables Americans routinely eat at the dinner table -- tomatoes, lettuce, oranges -- have faltered. With potential profits low, the biotech giants can't be bothered, and university scientists can't afford it. The plants have become effectively abandoned; in farm circles, they are called orphan crops.
The causes are numerous. Many scientists cite the regulatory burden needed to get biotech crops approved, which can take multiple years and millions of dollars. Others have been foiled by the host of patents held by the seed companies. Many are wary whether any consumers, leery of modification, would buy the produce. And little glory or grant money goes to scientists who apply research pioneered by their predecessors.
Gonsalves finds this frustrating. For more than a decade he has heard his papaya story told at conferences, yet few peers have followed him. As disease-resistant specialty crops sit neglected and unapproved, farmers instead fumigate their orchards with insecticide to target disease-spreading bugs. Meanwhile, his technology works, and it has been proven safe time and again, Gonsalves said.
"Twenty-five years ago, the technology was there," he said, sitting in his office north of Puna, where he runs the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center. "From the public sector, what do we have to show for it? This papaya? ... Is that a lot to show for 25 years and millions of dollars spent? I don't think so. I don't think so."
Gonsalves' message is echoed by many researchers, and last year, in its evaluation of biotech crops, the National Academy of Sciences, the country's premier scientific advisory body, cited the lack of biotech work on specialty crops as one of farming's most pressing problems. Basic science is not enough, it said. Researchers and farm-focused universities need to see these plants through to commercialization.
Gonsalves' work "is a model for what should have happened [everywhere]," said Roger Beachy, former director of USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture and one of the scientists who, in the 1980s, pioneered virus-resistance technology. "He just plain stuck to it because the farming industry needed it."
"He is a tireless innovator," added Pam Ronald, a plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis, and a well-known proponent of the need to combine the best practices of organic and biotech farming. "Not only did he return to his home to help the farmers in his area, he moved beyond basic science to getting his invention out in the field. ... His work is widely viewed as brilliant."
There are signs that Gonsalves' message is getting through. Last year, federal regulators approved a biotech plum, developed by USDA scientists, that resists a deadly European pox. Blight-blocking peanuts are under way. But perhaps the true test will come in the next few years, as academic scientists in Florida and Texas develop what is almost certain to become a flash point for consumers: biotech oranges.
Florida's oranges are under siege by the worst disease known to citrus, a bacterial infection known as huanglongbing, or citrus greening. A slow-moving disaster, there are no known citrus genes able to resist it. Scientists are scrambling to develop, with some success, biotech oranges that block the disease. Many suspect that huanglongbing will eventually prove Gonsalves' papaya as a model, or an irrelevant exception.
One thing is certain. It won't stay under the radar, said Erik Mirkov, a plant pathologist at Texas A&M University who has developed biotech orange varieties currently in field testing.
"Citrus is going to be a little more sensitive," he said. "It's on everyone's breakfast table."
For more than 30 years, Gonsalves has been consumed by ringspot.
He grew up on the Big Island's sugar plantations, since closed, where his father mowed grass. As an adult, Gonsalves migrated to the mainland, joining Cornell University in 1978. Back then, ringspot wasn't a problem in Hawaii. When the virus, carried by aphids, destroyed papaya farming on Oahu in the 1950s, the growers changed islands, settling in Puna. Business boomed in the county's rain-soaked soil.
As Gonsalves hunted for direction at Cornell, his dean took him aside. A world away, the virus had been spotted in the seaside town of Hilo, 20 miles north of Puna. "Dennis," the dean said. "What would happen if the virus spread? It could wipe out your papaya." From that point, often funded by modest earmarks from Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Gonsalves devoted himself to finding a way to stem the coming plague.
He threw himself into the study of ringspot: describing its structure and developing mild versions of the strain through mutation. It was interesting work but nothing he could move into the field. Across the hall, however, Gonsalves was fortunate to have one of the early pioneers of plant biotechnology, John Sanford.
A year after scientists created the first engineered plant, in 1983, Sanford proposed an idea: By inserting a strand of virus DNA into a vegetable's genetic code, could it gain immunity to the disease? While plants lack the active immune system found in animals, biologists had long known that, when exposed to a weak virus, they often develop some resistance to the intruder. Perhaps such a change could be made permanent?
While Sanford proposed the idea, Beachy, then at Washington University in St. Louis, demonstrated it a year later. After USDA turned down his grant application, Beachy worked with Monsanto to insert into tobacco's DNA a gene used by one of its viruses to create coat proteins, the molecular strands that serve as plates in viral armor. They weren't sure why, but the coat proteins made the tobacco highly disease resistant.
(Eventually, work on virus resistance would lead to the discovery of RNA silencing, one of biology's major advances in the past two decades. Ringspot, for example, hijacks the papaya cell's protein-making machinery to replicate. Gonsalves' papaya, however, produces a small stretch of genetic code -- RNA -- that spurs the cell's proteins to seek, bind and "silence" any similar viral RNA, rendering intruding ringspot mute.)
Gonsalves had found his cure. If he could get it to work.
The Cornell team isolated ringspot's coat protein. Meanwhile, across the hall, Sanford had invented the gene gun. The machine, fired by gunpowder taken from .22 caliber bullets, projected minute DNA-encoated tungsten balls down a barrel into plant cells; a small fraction of the cells would incorporate the DNA. Gonsalves' team used Sanford's original gun to create, by 1991, their first virus-resistant papaya, strain 55-1.
Subjected to ringspot in a Cornell greenhouse, 55-1 performed beautifully. It had been 13 years since Gonsalves started his work, and by great fortune his dean's prediction had not come true. Ringspot was not in Puna. Still, he was eager to move ahead.
"I said, 'Forget this stuff, man. Let's clone this and go into the field,'" he said.
The next year, under federal controls, they started a small trial of the papaya in Oahu, where ringspot remains rampant. A few months into the study, Gonsalves and a co-worker were returning from Guam to Honolulu. One of the project's technicians approached them at the airport. Gonsalves will never forget what he said:
"Hey, they think they have the virus in Puna."
By the mid-1990s, the papaya growers had suffered widespread devastation.
Efforts to contain the virus failed. Farmers infested with ringspot often abandoned their trees, rather than cutting them down, leaving vast reservoirs for the disease's incubation. Five years after its appearance, the virus had spread throughout Puna. The industry was in a downward spiral, said Russell Kokubun, Hawaii's agriculture chairman and a farmer on the Big Island.
Simply put, without Gonsalves, "we would have lost the papaya industry," Kokubun said.
With farmers anxious for a solution and their project headline news, Gonsalves and his collaborators at the University of Hawaii bred their red-fleshed 55-1 papaya with the conventional, yellow-fleshed papaya popular in the islands. (They had failed to transform the yellow-fleshed papaya on its own.) By 1995, they had a hybrid that combined the best characteristics of each papaya. They called it Rainbow.
The team planted a block of Rainbow and conventional papaya in Puna's most infected district. After 11 months, all the traditional papaya fell to infection, but after 27 months, three Rainbows sported ringspot brands. Standing dark green and papaya-laden, the trees provided 125,000 pounds of fruit per acre in a year; the conventional trees, stunted with yellowed, mosaic leaves, average 5,000 pounds.
Gonsalves then faced a choice. He could wait and see if the small papaya growers were able seek deregulation of the papaya on their own. Or, he could do it himself. The papaya, after all, was only one of his projects at Cornell; he was also dabbling in grapes and peaches. He had never done the kind of paperwork required by federal regulators. A successful approval was not going to win him any groundbreaking publications.
But he saw no other option. There was no one else.
"It wasn't my job to go to commercialization," Gonsalves said. "But as a scientist, you make a decision. Do you want to move forward? Our group, that was our mission."
There were many hurdles. They created the papaya with Beachy's technology, which Washington University had licensed to Monsanto. The papaya growers were deeply skeptical of the biotech giant, expecting they would charge millions of dollars for a license. But, as Gonsalves said, "You never know until you do it." Eventually, spurred by Beachy's desire to see the technology in the field, the licenses came through for almost nothing.
"There's an example where clearly all the technologies used were covered by patents, but there's no issue," said Fred Perlak, the head of Monsanto's Hawaiian operations. "It's not a big economic opportunity for anyone involved. ... [And] it is the right tool for papaya."
Meanwhile, Gonsalves was enmeshed in the deregulation process. He had to receive approval from USDA, U.S. EPA and the Food and Drug Administration, which meant a battery of toxicity and protein studies, among other tests. He moved through the process with a speed that would surprise most scientists today: By the fall of 1997, all three agencies had judged the papayas safe for consumption and the environment.
On May 1, 1998, after the patent licenses came through, Rainbow seeds were distributed for free to the Big Island's growers. In many cases, the farmers planted the Rainbow papaya immediately in heavily diseased fields, but the virus resistance held strong. Within a year, it was common to see orchards of Rainbow papaya decorating the Puna landscape.
Dressed in Hawaiian shirts and driving about in a beat-up white pickup truck, Gonsalves remains mostly anonymous on the Big Island -- except to the papaya farmers. One day, as he tells it, Gonsalves was in the hospital for a minor surgery. The janitor, an elderly Filipino man and part-time grower -- many of the island's growers have second jobs -- had a brief flash of recognition.
The next day, the janitor brought his entire family in to visit the man who saved the papaya.
After nearly two decades of biotech crop use, Gonsalves' story remains an exception.
Only one other commercial specialty crop, a squash widely sold in the Southeast, is bioengineered to resist a virus. (Unlike Hawaii, with its well-known papaya story, many buy the squash unaware of its origins.) Seminis, a vegetable seed company now owned by Monsanto, sells the crop, developed in the early 1990s. Like its peers, Monsanto has shown little appetite for further work on such orphans.
This freeze in biotech orphan crops -- only two such plants have been deregulated since 2000 -- is especially shocking when it comes to viruses, said Sarah Davidson, the associate director of Cornell's Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project, who previously analyzed opposition to Gonsalves' virus-resistant papaya in Thailand.
"The compelling thing about the technology for virus resistance is that viruses are so hard to control," she said. Yet universities like Cornell, which used to be a constant source of innovative breeding and crop technologies, have faltered in securing deregulation of their engineered crops.
"You would think there would be more [modified] crops out there from the land-grant institutions," she said. "But it's too expensive."
Modified crops are not the solution to all of the world's agriculture problems -- typically single genes do not control complex traits like drought resistance -- but to this day there is no conventional or organic method known to control ringspot virus and its many peers, Davis' Ronald added.
"The question is not, 'Is [genetic engineering] good or bad?'" she said. "But instead, what is the most appropriate technology that can be used for a particular situation, and will that approach advance sustainable agriculture."
Many scientists view Gonsalves as fortunate, in a way. He worked on his papaya in an "age of innocence," as he put it, before the broadening use of biotech corn and soybean prompted scares against biotech crops in the media and, especially, the European Union. (Today, some 90 percent of U.S. corn, soy and cotton are modified to resist pests or herbicides.) Ringspot's devastation also gave a mandate rarely seen in farming; many viruses are more modest, sapping a crop of 10 or 20 percent of its growth.
The nail in the coffin for virus resistance, in many scientists' eyes, was the potato. Monsanto developed varieties resistant to the leafroll virus, one of the crop's most severe diseases, and the Colorado potato beetle. The work came to fruition in the late 1990s, alongside the movement protesting modified crops. Concerns of consumer rejection won: By 1999, McDonald's declared it would not sell biotech french fries.
On the corporate side, anything after that, Davidson said, "was sort of a nonstarter."
More than anything else, researchers cite two problems blocking orphan crop work. Like the papaya growers, they fear licenses on biotech patents will stop their development, and, most of all, they cite the cost of getting crops through deregulation. It's a regular refrain at scientific meetings. It will cost millions of dollars, maybe even tens of millions, to deregulate. Who can afford to do that?
The high end of those estimates, though, are often based on the manpower costs of the biotech giants, who have divisions dedicated to quickly moving crops through deregulation. While he faced a simpler regulatory environment, Gonsalves never spent that kind of money. Neither did Ralph Scorza, a USDA breeder who, last year, became the second public-sector scientist to see a virus-resistant fruit -- a plum -- deregulated.
Simply put, it took as much time as money. In 1990, Scorza began developing a plum that could resist a pox wrecking stone-fruit trees in Europe. The pox had not come to the United States, but it could easily spread. Scorza used Gonsalves' genetic construct to bioengineer the plum, and, by 2000, he had a resistant variety.
By then, Gonsalves' papaya had been proven a success, and Scorza and his superiors decided to move ahead. The pox had spread to Pennsylvania, in 1999; to stop it, he said, they had to "eradicate the stone-fruit industry" in the state. (The pox has since appeared in New York.) Scorza began working with the regulatory agencies in 2003, and received final approval in 2010. The process took 20 years -- about the time needed to breed a decent plum trait, he said -- but future efforts should chew through fewer hours.
With climate change, among other factors, the crop will need to be developed in less time, he added. "Environments are not as stable as they were," he said. "We're not going to be able to afford programs that are going to take lifetimes."
Those time savings should come now that many early biotech patents are expiring. The universities have also created a nonprofit, PIPRA, that can guide researchers through this patent wicket, and another group, Specialty Crop Regulatory Assistance, has started ushering scientists through the government's rules.
If researchers are willing to swallow their pride and apply what is now an older and mature science to abandoned crops, the resources, guides and material are out there, scientists say.
"Hopefully the success of papaya and the success of [our] plum will provide a roadmap to other organizations," Scorza said. "At least it provides the idea that it can be done. If you put the work into getting it through the system, it can be done."
Gonsalves' attachment to ringspot did not end at the Rainbow papaya's approval.
Growing the biotech papayas meant, for the island's larger fruit exporters, the effective loss of Japan as a market. Japan had zero tolerance for any Rainbow crossbreeding with conventional papaya, and Rainbow itself was not approved for importation. Only a few small exporters, like Toshi Aoki, kept the trade alive.
"When the virus came in, we worked hard to preserve the Japanese market," Aoki said during a tour of his warehouse, where workers sorted colored-coded crates bound for Japan or the U.S. mainland, where he sells papayas under the brand "Hawaiian Surf."
A Japanese transplant himself, Aoki and the other growers, along with the Japanese government, established a system to certify that their papaya were free of Rainbow genes. Gonsalves' group studied the separation that conventional and biotech papayas would need to avoid crossbreeding -- a modest distance, since the hybrid Rainbows are hermaphrodites.
The crossbreeding of biotech crops with conventional and organic varieties has become a heated question over the past few years, with environmental groups concerned that such gene flow could result in lost exports to Europe or Japan. While USDA has wrestled with the question of mandating "coexistence" strategies for these crops, Hawaii's papaya growers have gone out and done it, Gonsalves said.
"This is a real model," he said. "If you want to do something and respect that they don't want gene flow, you can. If you want to ship [unmodified] papaya to Japan, you can. If you're willing to do the work together."
While farmers quickly took to the Rainbow papaya, there was some strident opposition to the crop at first, especially from Greenpeace. (The Big Island is one of the most conflicted U.S. counties when it comes to biotechnology: It relies on modified papaya, but three years ago banned bioengineered taro and coffee.) Those voices have since calmed, Gonsalves said, as a walk through the local farmers' market in Hilo attests. On repeated trips, only once were the papaya labeled "GMO free"; typically, biotech and conventional varieties are sold by their breed names -- Rainbow, Solo, SunUp, Kapoho.
Over the past two years, however, there have been two cases where unknown perpetrators cut down fields of biotech papaya. Most recently, in July, vandals cut down 10 acres of the crop. While newspapers were quick to speculate about biotech opposition, no groups claimed the attacks. And given the expertise used to chop the trees, Gonsalves suspects a more banal motivation: competition between the growers.
A mention of Greenpeace causes Gonsalves sadness and anger. For two decades, he has worked with developing nations to grow their own ringspot-resistant papaya. Early on, the Thai government funded a student to his lab who developed a resistant variety that could be distributed to Thai farmers. But in 2004, Greenpeace volunteers dressed in gas masks and white hazard suits destroyed the field trials. The government eventually placed a moratorium on biotech crops.
"The biosafety work is done," he said, "but I don't think it will see the light of day."
Orange crops at risk
For years, it has been a subject of speculation: Will shoppers buy genetically modified produce?
To be sure, consumers eat the ground-up remains of biotech corn and soybean everyday; much of the processed food sold in the United States contains biotech genes. But consumers largely rejected a long-lasting, but rubbery tasting, biotech tomato that went on the market in the 1990s. Beyond the papaya, there have been few other opportunities to see if biotech produce can sell.
As Gonsalves sees it, there are two important sales tests coming soon.
Similar in its devastation to ringspot, huanglongbing, an Asian bacterial disease carried by aphid-like bugs, has been creeping through Florida, destroying its citrus trees and souring their fruit. Five years ago, Gonsalves met with citrus scientists, arguing that they had to explore biotechnology in case there was no other choice. They demurred. The public would never go for it, they said.
Since then, scientists have not found any natural resistance to the disease in citrus. Given this reality, a committee convened by the National Academy of Science stated that biotech orange trees will be needed to save the industry. The work is well under way: Erik Mirkov, the Texas A&M scientist, has developed oranges imbued with antimicrobial proteins that, in targeted fashion, pop the cell wall of the disease-causing bacteria.
Mirkov suspects the trees could be ready in five years. All along, Gonsalves' papaya and Scorza's plum have been his model. Consumers will accept the oranges, he hopes, if only because of the dire alternatives.
"If we don't go this way," he said, "we won't have orange juice anymore."
Closer to Hawaii, Gonsalves is eager to see the final act in his lifetime with papaya. After a decade of consideration, earlier this month Japan approved the import and sale of Rainbow papaya from Hawaii. The papayas will be labeled as genetically modified, and he is deeply curious if they will sell.
"This is going to be real data," Gonsalves said. He would like to see similar examples in the United States in orphan crops like lettuce or tomato, but for now, this experiment will do. "We have a chance in Japan," he said. "It's tough. But we have a chance."
At 68, Gonsalves plans to retire in the next couple of years. When he does, he will walk away and hope others will follow his example. He wants to study the Hawaiian language and practice his steel guitar. In fact, he recently had the chance to get some early musical work in. Joined by 25 boxes of Rainbow papaya, shipped by Aoki, Gonsalves and his wife, Carol, flew to Tokyo earlier this month. At the U.S. ambassador's residence, they performed a duet to welcome his papaya.
Their song of choice? "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."