Fruitful Lessons From Papayas to Oranges

It was the saddest sight I've ever seen: My father's fields turned into a diseased wasteland of trees.
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It was the saddest sight I've ever seen: My father's fields turned into a diseased wasteland of trees.

Where papaya trees once stood, thick with leaves and fruit, only dead stumps remained. His life's work as a farmer seemed to vanish, due to a lethal virus that nearly wiped out Hawaii's papaya industry.

Access to cutting-edge technology saved my father's farm and Hawaii's papayas -- and if we learn the right lessons from this story, it may rescue America's oranges from a similar threat.

Growing up on a farm, I couldn't imagine a life without papayas. Even as kids, we helped with the crop. I thought my dad was the meanest dad in the world: He forced us out of bed on Saturday mornings to do our part. When my friends were watching cartoons, I was washing papayas, slapping stickers on them, and preparing their wooden cases for shipments.

It really wasn't that bad, of course. We also took breaks at the beach with my grandfather and played in a stream next to the field. It was good family time, and we also learned about the importance of hard work and dedication to quality.

So when the papaya ringspot virus attacked in the 1990s, it ravaged not only the economy, but also a way of life. Our family and the other papaya growers watched helplessly as the virus would start as rings on the leaves and fruit, eventually weakening the tree so much it could not produce fruit. The only way to control the virus was to chop down the trees. The empty spots in the fields eventually became depressing acres of stumps. Papayas, a staple for many elderly folks, became almost non-existent in the markets, meaning there were less local fruits.

I was in college then, and farming didn't look like a professional option. The papayas were dying. My father was suffering. So I went into a completely different field.

I played a small part in protecting Hawaii's papayas, however. As a student, I worked in my university's plant pathology lab, aiding scientists who researched ways to defeat the ringspot virus. I inoculated trees and planted seedlings, under the guidance of researchers who understood the promise of biotechnology.

Science eventually saved Hawaii's papaya -- as well as my father's farm. Today's papaya trees carry a natural resistance to the ringspot virus. My father's farm is back in business. His fields are full of trees that bear safe and nutritious fruit. People eat what he grows once again.

We owe it all to biotechnology.

I think of my family's story whenever I hear about the current threat to America's oranges.

The daughters of orange growers soon may look on their fathers' fields and see nothing but empty fields. Some of them already do, in fact.

That's because a bacterial infection has started to devastate orange groves in Florida and beyond. Spread by bugs, it attacks the roots of orange trees. They drop their fruit before it ripens. Then the trees begin to die.

The phenomenon is called "citrus greening." It first showed up more than a decade ago. In the last few years, it has appeared just about everywhere Americans grow oranges.

Farmers, scientists, and other agricultural experts now wonder if we'll still be able to raise oranges in the United States in just a few years.

Think about that tomorrow morning, when you're enjoying a cold glass of orange juice.

The good news is that biotechnology promises a solution, just as it did for Hawaii's papayas.

Research suggests that scientists may be able to thwart citrus greening by inserting a gene from spinach plants into orange trees, providing the trees with a natural way to resist the bacteria. In its fundamentals, this is the same technique that worked for papayas.

This approach may represent the last, best hope for America's oranges. Testing is underway.

Not unlike some of the papaya growers, some orange growers are worried. They wonder if consumers will accept genetically modified oranges. Although we eat food with genetically modified ingredients every day, an ideological movement seeks to defame modern science.

Will the oranges survive? The experience of Hawaii's papayas suggests that there is nothing inevitable about citrus greening. With the tools of modern science, we have the ability to overcome the worst assaults on our favorite foods. Yet we must affirmatively choose this option, and then let farmers have access to what it provides.

We saved the papayas. We can save the oranges. The choice is ours.

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