Last year on SAIFood we discussed the benefits of the four major genetically modified (GM) crops, canola, corn, cotton and soybeans, yet less attention has been given to smaller acre GM crop production. It isn’t surprising why most of the attention regarding GM crops is focused on the four leading crops as they account for 99% of the global GM crop acreage. However, the remaining 1% has significant benefits. This sliver of the GM pie is represented by a wide variety of crops, including apples, eggplants, papayas, pineapples, potatos, squash and sugar beets.

The GMO that saved the Hawaiian Papaya Industry

The papaya is an important crop for the Hawaiian Islands, yet the majority of papaya farms are less than 50 acres. In the early 1990s, Hawaiian papaya production ranged from 55-60 million pounds per year. At this time, a disease known as papaya ringspot virus (PRSV) began to devastate papaya production. PRSV rapidly spread throughout the papaya growing area, and production plummeted to 30 million pounds by the mid-2000s. The decline in production resulted in lower papaya exports, reducing this value from $16M in 1996 to $1M in 2011[1] (Sato, 2011). Through the introduction of GM papayas, the PRSV resistant crop (known as the Rainbow papaya) saved the papaya industry in Hawaii. Since its commercialization in 1998, production levels have returned to those of the early 1990s.

‘Egg’-gronomic benefits of GM plants

In Bangladesh the average farm size is 0.6 acres in size, in which eggplants are an important crop with roughly 115,000-125,000 acres of eggplant production annually. Four years after GM eggplants were commercialized with insect resistance (Bt) (in 2014) about 20% of the eggplant producing farmers in Bangladesh were planting the GM variety. Traditional eggplant producers find insect damage to be a major issue, in which some farmers have reported spraying their crop up 100 times per growing season. Even with the high levels of pesticide application, farmers can still experience 30-60% harvest losses from insects. A comparison of Bt and non-Bt eggplant farmers found that Bt eggplant farmers reported no pesticide application for fruit and shoot borers (FBS). While those farmers with non-Bt farmers reported up to 100 FBS pesticide applications.

Benefits beyond production and agronomics

GM varieties of potatoes and apples are improved to reduce food waste. In 2016, J. R. Simplot’s four GM potato varieties (Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet, Atlantic and Snowden) reached 4,000 acres of production in the USA. This smaller scaled production is all processed for the frozen french fry market. There are over 40+ variations of GM potatoes with benefits ranging from pest and disease management to reduced spoilage through reducing bruising and browning in storage and transport. The Simplot Innate® varieties were expected to be available for planting in Canada in 2016 and 2017. One estimate identified that if all of the potatoes grown in Canada were GM, which reduces the spoilage from bruising during harvest and transport, 93 million kgs of potato waste could be prevented. The Arctic Apple is also genetically modified to reducing browning. This advantage is expected to be noticed by food manufacturer/processors and consumers. GM apple orchards were first planted/grafted in 2015 and in 2017 small quantities of GM apples began to appear.

Small but not forgotten

There are a number of other GM food crops on the market, which are 1% of the 1% of GM crops. The benefits from GM crops is different for each crop. For instance, Del Monte has developed a GM pineapple that has pink flesh. This pink and sweeter pineapple is expected to be grown in Costa Rica. The three types of GM squash (yellow crookneck, straightneck, and zucchini) have been produced on limited acres in the USA since the mid-1990s, modified for disease resistance. Sugar is common in our diets and GM sugar beets have been produced in the USA and Canada for most of this decade, with high rates of farmer adoption. This is due to the crop using one-third less water, having insect resistance and a reduction of herbicide applications from 7 to 1.

While the hundreds of millions of acres of large-scale GM crops provide millions in benefits, the benefits of small scale GM crop production are not insignificant. Small-scale GM crops reduce chemical use, resulting in lower input costs, higher profits for farmers, and less food waste. Even though they are smaller in production scale, these GM crops have had big benefits for agriculture.

[1] Sato, S (2011), ‘Japan approved GM papaya’, Gain Report O. JA1048, USDA Foreign Agricultural Service. The link was not available at the time of posting due to US government shutdown.


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