Pests are nothing new: They have often disrupted agriculture in the past. However, two unique aspects of our times exacerbate such risks.
With ever-increasing global travel and commerce, new exotic pathogens, weeds and insects are spread around the world at a faster rate than ever before. Additionally, as climate changes, pests are often able to thrive in new places or at different times of year than in the past, creating much more difficult control issues.
Greater risk of pest threats is particularly problematic for many of our favorite luxury food and beverage crops. But keeping up the quality of these perennial crops depends on complex factors. You can’t just breed a new pest-resistant variety because it is so hard to maintain the quality and each generation of seed takes years to produce. Conventional genetic solutions would take decades at best, and the new pest challenges don’t give us that luxury.
Florida Orange Juice
The Florida juice industry has largely moved to providing more not-from-concentrate, premium orange juice because of competition for frozen juice coming from Brazil. Now, the whole Florida industry is in serious decline because of a new bacterial disease spread by a new, exotic insect vector. Farmers have funded research that may have found a GMO solution, but whether they will get to use it is up to brand-sensitive juice marketing companies.
The 1930s hit song “Yes, We Have No Bananas” was actually about “Panama Disease” (Fusarium oxysporum) which wiped out the previous banana of commerce (the Gros Michel variety). Fortuitously, a new banana called the Cavendish was found in Vietnam. It was resistant to the disease and also suitable for shipping (most bananas are not). Now there is a new strain of the same pathogen called Fusarium Tropical Race 4, which is destroying the Cavendish in Asia and recently in Australia and Mozambique. It is probably only a matter of time before someone inadvertently transports this pathogen to the Americas. There has been some work on a solution, but nothing close to what would be needed to protect the future supply of this popular fruit or the jobs of a great many people involved in growing and shipping it.
Cacao, the bean chocolate comes from, gets attacked by many pests, but two in particular have been spreading throughout Central and South America leading to dramatic declines in production. The diseases are called Witch’s Broom and Frosty Pod, and according to leading researchers, Frosty Pod alone “presents a substantial threat to cacao cultivation worldwide.”
Major confectionary companies – like Nestle, Mars and Hershey’s – have funded genome sequencing, but on their websites they imply or state outright that they won’t be pursing genetic engineering solutions. Once again, the people at the most risk here are small-scale farmers, particularly those in Africa, should these pathogens make it there from the Americas.
Modern genetic engineering approaches could be very logical ways to protect these particular crops. Also, with these crops it would be feasible to maintain separate GMO and non-GMO options. “Identity preservation” is the norm for crops like this because their value and quality justify the cost of keeping records and using different equipment. There may be consumers who will never trust the science, and in a wealthier society they can continue to buy a non-GMO option. What does not make sense is that a vocal minority has already compromised the future supply for everyone. You can’t get back more than a decade of potential progress just by throwing money at a problem in a crisis. What makes even less sense is that the people who would lose the most in these pest-driven scenarios are often the hard-working people who provide us with these luxuries.
This column was adapted with permission from a post by Dr. Steve Savage on the Applied Mythology blog. Savage is a consultant with Savage & Associates.