Transgenic Papaya & Taking Into Account

June 3, 2010

(This post began as comment on this article from the Scientist Gardener blog, and then got really long, so I thought I would publish it here as well).

Your post on Dennis Gonsalves’ work and Transgenic Papaya (USDA approval application (.pdf)) is a great introduction to the much more nuanced and complex landscape of opinions regarding the implementation of transgenic agriculture today, as opposed to 10 years ago. It’s a shame you rely on the “Anti-GM activists” as a boogey man. As far as I can tell here in India, the range of stakeholders and the nuance of their positions is not so easy to generalize. I am happy to see you taking into account flavor as one indicator of food system health / resilience as well.

I have met increasing numbers of stakeholders, scientists and “activists” in my recent research on Genomic Gastronomy who very much understand the science of transgenic biotechnology, but have well reasoned and legitimate critiques based on the political, ecological and economic implications of SPECIFIC transgenic varieties being released in SPECIFIC bioregions and cultures. In some cases the introduction of a transgenic variety may ameliorate a problem, but in other cases an alternative biotechnology (permaculture, decentralizing farming practices, species substitution) may be a preferred or more efficacious option.

Many are skeptical of ANY major food system change (whether Transgenic, Organic, Urban or Export Oriented) that attempts all-at-once, top down changes that don’t take into account the locally existing production, distribution, or consumption practices. (A probably too often cited example: the failure of implementing high-yield varieties of rice in a top-down manner in Bali ) What I like about your post is that you show how the creation and implementation transgenic Papaya at least attempts to take into more considerations than profit / yield maximization, such as the cultural habits of farmers and eaters, particular challenges to a geographically limited space. Working on an island sort of forces one to do just that. But assuming, that this biotech fix will be the right choice everywhere might be jumping the gun.

Other than Papaya, I am wondering if any other field tested or commercialized transgenic varieties in the U.S. pay such close attention to how the transgenic fits into and affects a pre-existing food system?

I am wondering if you see Mahyco‘s/Monsanto‘s attempted introduction of 6 transgenic varieties of Eggplant (BT Brinjal) in India this year, as a reflection or shadow to Dennis’ practices. Here are a few of the things I understand about both processes and where they differ. (Please let me know if there are errors).


Dennis’ work focused on a specific and devastating virus: the Papaya Ringspot Virus. Whatever we may think about the production of Papaya in Hawaii for export to the United States and Japan (a seemingly unsustainable practice that probably won’t survive the emerging changes in energy economies and material flows) one has to acknowledge that there are farmers with livelihood that were directly and immediately effected negatively by creeping papaya ringspot potyvirus (PRSV).

It might be possible to co-design a sustainable/resilient food system, slowly, working with farmers to transition Papaya farms towards a collection of other plants that provide Vitamin A & C, and can be consumed locally instead of shipped around the world, and allows them to remain profitable. But that is a slower implementation of a “Social Technology”. Biotechnological often seem easier, and the implied changes in human lifeways and habits are not as explicit as in social or soft technologies.

Implementing transgenic Papaya to ward off PRSV is AN option, but may not address any of the root or long term challenges to farming and food security on Hawaii, but it has the advantage of addressing a specific local problem and addressing the problem with the use of already highly specialized species and variety of crop. Papaya could be swapped out with the other transgenic or non transgenic species in the future without disrupting global food security. (Unlike, say, rice, corn, wheat or soy). Although this would require an accompany change in gastronomic practices, especially in places like Japan and Thailand.


In contrast, Mohayco/Monsanto’s strain of transgenic Eggplant (BT Brinjal) does not focus on a specific geographic or agrinomic threat. The the transgenic cry gene makes the brinjal plant toxic to lepidopteron insects that attempt to ingest the plant.
The lepidopteron is one of the most speciose orders in the world that includes moths and butterflies and agricultural pests such as Shoot Borer (Leucinodes orbonalis) and Fruit Borer (Helicoverpa armigera). When the Bt toxin is ingested by the insect it binds to receptors in the insects midgut and then forms pores, ultimately killing the insect. In addition to the massive order effected by BT (both as a transgene and naturally occurring), India has bred and grows 100s of varieties of Brinjal that each have different agronomic and gastronomic properties.

Transgenic varieties of plants with theBacillus thuringiensis (BT) transgene are often marketed basically as a pesticide substitute, because effects whatever Lepidoptera insects attempt to eat the plant.

One set of reasoned critiques around the wide-scale implementation of the BT transgene generally, and the BT Brinjal plant in particular have to do with issues of scale including:

– it is not guaranteed that farmers will reduce pesticide use if the seed is sold nationally without oversight (lack of user-training)

– the efficacy of naturally occurring BT is lowered, as some pests evolve resistance to the toxin (tragedy of the commons of ecosystem services, economic externalities)

– the commercialization of BT Brinjal would severely reduce the agricultural BioDiversity (agronomic)

– it directly affects a massive ORDER of species (as opposed to transgenic Papaya which is intended to effect one virus in a GENUS). One design critique I would make is that the transgenic intervention using BT is much too wide. By not attacking a specific and eminent existential threat, a BT variety has a new relationship with many many other organisms in the agricultural ecosystem. Measuring the intended (and possibly, unintended) consequences of the Papaya means starting at the level of genus.

– India is home to ~ 1/6th of all the humans that live on the planet. The decision to approve transgenic plants is taken by the GEAC the level of the central national government, although some states have attempted to opt out, but keep in mind that many states of India have more citizens than most European countries! This decision is highly centralized and effects the food security (whether for good or bad) and is quite different in scale than approving a transgenic fruit on a small island. Caution should be prioritized in such a decision.

I don’t necessarily think each critique is equally valid: I would like to see independent ethnographic and field test data where available / appropriate.

However, they point to the fact that unlike transgenic Papaya which solves a specific and existential threat to a SPECIFIC agricultural variety (Hawiian solo type) the application of BT Brinjal is an probably too large and totalizing a solution for an always-existing agronomic problem (general pest control) for a massive and massively diverse food system. I can’t blame GE skeptics for being more skeptical of the technology and Monsanto as its corporate poster child than before.

I should note that the Indian government has its own research initiatives for creating transgenic varieties, which would presumably be distributed under a much more palatable intellectual property and pricing regime if they were ever approved. I will be posting more about that as soon as I track down some specifics.

I don’t know much about Hawaii’s Papaya industry, but if it “consists of indigenous and immigrant family farms, hand-tended on small plots of land” and remains that way, that seems politically and ecologically (although not necessarily economically) acceptable. That is in contrast to the consolidation and move towards monocultures that accompanies the the commercialization of transgenic strains.

Final thought: Most approved transgenic strains have been grains, Papaya is the exception, and so it may be that as profit-independent University and Government labs create non-grain GE varieties that don’t adversely effect ecosystem services and agricultural biodiversity, or further consolidate farming practices and intellectual property, there will be an increase in popular support for commercializing SOME GE varieties if it is seen to be the most efficacious solution for specific problems.

A recent quote from Science sums it up nicely for me:

“Our view is that genetic modification is a potentially valuable technology whose advantages and disadvantages need to be considered rigorously on an evidential, inclusive, case-by-case basis: Genetic modification should neither be privileged nor automatically dismissed.

We also accept the need for technology to gain greater public acceptance and trust before it can be considered as one among a set of technologies that may contribute to improved global food security.”
– H. Charles Gadfray et al. “Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People”

June: NCBS, India

June 2, 2010

On June 17th the Center presented an iBio talk at Bangalore’s NCBS (National Center for Biological Science) about recent research projects that examine Agricultural Biodiversity, Genetic Engineering and Food Security from the perspective of a eaters and cooks. The audience was so big we had to move into a larger auditorium.

As luck would have it Daisy Ginsberg and James King (who have both worked on Synthetic Biology) were in town as well, and since we had a captive audience of scientists and post-docs, they gave a talk as well. An incredible 1-2 punch of art, science, consumption and excretion.

Thank you to for NCBS for hosting us, and initiating interdisciplinary conversation and post-disciplinary practice.

Lecture at NCBS (National Center for Biological Sciences) Bangalore, India from genomic gastronomy on Vimeo.

Making Vegetarian Bouillabaisse: What Happens to GMOs If They Fail?

May 30, 2010

The “fish tomato” is special. It is one of the most infamous genomes on the planet, and according to some historians it has never existed. The idea of inserting a fish gene into a tomato to create a frost tolerant transgenic variety of tomato catalyzed political anger towards GE Food experimentation and commercialization on the right, on the left, amongst Christians and Greens, and the Royal Family.

However, many of the facts about this canonical genetically engineered organism are still unknown. In order to better tell the story of contemporary Genomic Gastronomy we have begun a research project titled “Vegetarian Bouillabaisse”, which is a recipe that call for the inclusion of the “Fish Tomato”. In attempting to acquire or recreate the Fish/Tomato in order to cook with it, we hope to reenact a unnecessarily murky period in the (recent) history of science. (I make sure to invite lots of Buddhists Vegetarians to my transgenic soup party.)

But first some background on the plant.

Q: Were fish genes ever inserted into a tomato?

A: Yes. Here (.pdf) is the approval for field test from the USDA. This document contains quite a bit of information about the “Fish Tomato” (a.ka. tomato; antifreeze gene; staphylococcal Protein A) and how DNA Plant Technology Corporation produced it. (They sold the technology to J.R. Simplot Company in 1995 and the company ceased R&D operations in 2002).

Although, beware, how you interpret “inserted”, “fish genes” and “tomato” may be different than how a biotechnologist, corporation, lawyer, government oversight board etc. understand the process and the product.

The metaphors and mental models about genomes, genes, transgenics and agricultural taxonomy haven’t caught up to the ability of humans to employ novel biotechnologies. That is one reason why the Center feels strongly that Amateurs, Artists and Historians should be critically engage with emerging BioTechnology.

For a good overview of the process employed to create the transgenic “Fish Tomato” I have included a useful information diagram from the BBC’s website. (I refuse to call it a “Frost Tolerant” tomato because I haven’t seen any experimental data that is was successful in field test conditions.)

(Please note that this feature is no longer stored on the BBC website. Here is A more complete .pdf of screen grabs of the original BBC story.)

Q: Would eating the Fish Tomato make me sick if I have a seafood allergy?

A: Probably not, but it is not clear that there has been any testing in this area. This particular product never reached the stage of commercialization and I can find no record of it being tested on human or non-human subjects. However, at it’s annual shareholder meeting in 1995, product samples of a different species of transgenic tomato that was being developed, but had not yet been commercialized, were provided for tasting by the attendees.

According to the Food Allergy Initiative “the protein in the flesh of fish most commonly causes the allergic reaction; however, it is also possible to have a reaction to fish gelatin, made from the skin and bones of fish. Although fish oil does not contain protein from the fish from which it was extracted, it is likely to be contaminated with small molecules of protein and therefore should be avoided.” It is unclear to me how much of a phenotypical change would have to take place in a non-seafood product, before it would produce the allergy-causing protein. I am certainly no expert, but it seems unlikely that the insertion of one gene would cause the production of the said proteins, but better safe than sorry. I wrote to the US NIH to get a more expert opinion. (UPDATE: Please see next blog post for more information.)

Q: Did the “Fish Tomato” ever exist as a material instantiation?

A: It appears that it did, but I have not seen any information about the number of plants or tomato fruits that were created. In the application for field test approval the company wrote “The plants have been tested in the greenhouse to obtain initial data relating to the genetic stability of the plants and preliminary data on efficacy.”

They went on to write “It is normal for controlled field tests to be performed after greenhouse testing to confirm the efficacy data, which can only be validated in the environment using standard agricultural practices. Such limited field testing is required to develop a potential agricultural product.” However, as in the case of many artifacts and genomes created in lab, there is not always transference of knowledge to the public domain. I would love it if anyone could provide a photograph of the plant.

Q: Was the Fish Tomato ever field tested outside of a lab?

A: It appears likely, but can not be confirmed. The company applied for and received approval to do a field test in Contra Costa County, California.

However, the U.S.D.A. doesn’t require an applying institution to actually perform a field test, nor does it collect or publish data on the results of field tests. So it may be the case that DNA Plant Technology applied for approval and never carried out the field test, although that seems unlikely at best. However, there is record in any public database that I have seen that confirms whether or not the field test actually took place, or what the results were.

Q: Does the “Fish Tomato” exist today?

A: The basic “technological recipe” for creating the Fish Tomato exists today. Whether or not any material copies of the genome are in existence are unknown.
Some possibilities are that:
– The Fish Tomato was only ever tested in a greenhouse. After the test all genetic material was destroyed and no genetic copies remain on planet earth, in the lab or in the field.
There is a lab / greenhouse somewhere in the world where copies of these plants still exist.
– The Tomato plant was field tested, and despite the best intentions the genomic data was passed on (bird / cross breeding etc.)

The listing of this last possibility is not to create fear, but to point out the total lack of transparency in the process of field testing transgenic oganisms once approval has been granted. The public does not even know if this transgenic organism was ever field tested, much less what the experimental results were, or whether the genome may exist somewhere on planet earth now, or only in a database as information.

Q: Did the gene inserted in the tomato make it frost tolerant?

I have been told that the discussion in the scientific community “is that the fish antifreeze protein doesn’t help increase cold tolerance in plants for several reasons- one being that the fish live in an aqueous environment and the plants live in soil and air. The physiological milieu is so different that the protein doesn’t help. Second, the arctic fish have to withstand a very consistent coldness of only one or two degrees below “normal”, and the antifreeze protein is satisfactory in facilitating survival in those conditions. In plants, however, the cold temperatures fluctuate and can drop many degrees below “normal”. The antifreeze protein does not seem to offer any help in such widely fluctuating temperatures.” However, I have not been able to corroborate these statements with field test data or other primary source documents. Under the current regulatory regime, if an institution is granted the right to field test a novel transgenic crop, they are not required to report or make public whether they actually tested the crop, and what the results of those test were.

That sounds like bad science. Since good science is verifiable our “Vegetarian Bouillabaisse” is attempting to access and field test the efficacy of this never commercialized species, or restage the re-create the Fish Tomato in the lab as a historical re enactment. If anyone would like to assist the Center in this project with technical expertise, or financial assistance please contact us at


Field Test Release Applications in the U.S.

ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT AND FINDING OF NO SIGNIFICANT IMPACT: Permit Number 91-079-01: tomato; antifreeze gene; staphylococcal Protein A

(Full Text (.pdf): “Expression of antifreeze proteins in transgenic plants” – Robin Hightower, et al. in Plant Molecular Biology (1991) “Accumulation of type I fish antifreeze protein in transgenic tobacco is cold-specific” – Kimberly D. Kenward et al. in Plant Molecular Biology (1993)

Does is it Matter What GMOs Taste Like? (Part 1: BT Brinjal)

May 27, 2010

Back in March India debated whether or not to allow genetically engineered “BT” Brinjal (a.k.a. Aubergene / Eggplant) seeds to be sold and planted. India’s national government, through the regulatory body Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) had previously approved BT Cotton (which is controversial both because of failed pest control tests and perceived links with farmer suicides). But Monsanto/Mahyco‘s BT Brinjaal would have been the first transgenic food crop approved for release.

Having lived in Karnata, India on and off for four years, I was astonished to only recently recognize the diversity of Brinjal grown in India. I had seen two or three varieties of Brinjal in the vegetable stands and super markets nearby, but in Karnataka (and most Indian) Cuisine, vegetables are folded into gravies such that they lose their visual markings. (But certainly not their flavor!) I only first became aware of the diversity of Aubergene when I saw images like this, from citizens protesting outside of the Bangalore debate on BT Brinjal.

It turns out that Brinjal varieties and recipes rival the diversity and culinary passions of Americans and their Tomatoes. This is one vegetable fruit that has serious gastronomic relevance in the sub-continent. If BT Brinjal were approved would it quickly become the dominate variety and severely reduce the agricultural biodiversity of India’s food system?

I followed the English-language debates in print, and in person, somewhat closely since Janruary 2010, and I had never heard mention of which variety (or varieties) of Brinjal had been transgenically altered, or which ones were going to be considered for approval / up for sale.

If I were to guess which variety would serve as the most ubiquitous for sale across in India, I would predict the large purple Bartha. But as shown in the collage below other people imagined and imaged a BT Brinjal made from the medium purple variety with the spike on the stem called: “Mullu Badnekai”.

Putting aside the other points of debate about this agricultural technology, I am amazed that the topic of what varieties of Monsanto/Mahyco had engineered and field tested never came up.

No matter what food system one is talking about, even eaters without food security feel an attachment to the varieties, recipes and rituals that have existed, and are excited to taste and cook with new foods. How could this simple fact about Genomic Gastronomy not have entered into the debate? I hope I just missed this point and someone can point out the answer to me.

The above poster (printable A4 .pdf version here) was completed as part of course on art & biotechnology at the Srishti School of Art, Design & Technology. Thanks to all the students to participated and apologies that our Kannada is imperfect at best.

May: CSTEP, India

May 26, 2010

Lecture “Genomic Gastronomy: Food Systems, Security & Policy” at CSTEP (Center for Study of Science Technology and Policy) in Bangalore.

vid from genomic gastronomy on Vimeo.

This talk gave a broad overview of international issues and policies in agriculture and food security, and showcased three research projects that explore Agricultural BioDiversity, Genetically Engineered Crops and the difference between European and United States food laws.


May: Srishti, India

May 25, 2010

In May 2010 the Center for Genomic Gastronomy made a presentation at the Srishti School of Art, Design & Technology in Bangalore, India.

The lecture was presented to the Freshman Synthetic Biology (“Teenage Gene Poets”) course led by Yashas Shetty of CEMA who are competing in the iGEM competition at MIT.

The lecture introduced the students to the research about food, biotechnology and culture the Center for Genomic Gastronomy is engaged in.

Center for Genomic Gastronomy @ Srishti, Bangalore, India from genomic gastronomy on Vimeo.

April: Interactivos!, Spain

May 15, 2010

Center for Genomic Gastronomy lecture given by Zack at the conclusion of the Interactivos? workshop at the Process as Paradigm (catalog) show at the Laboral Centro De Arte, Gijon Spain, in April 2010.

Bangalore DNA coverage of Brinjaal 4-Way

March 26, 2010

((The DNA Newspaper doesn’t easily allow links to its articles so I have republished it here))

Students let brinjal dishes do the talking

They spoke of the crop’s diversity instead of posturing on bt debate

Malavika Velayanikal. Bangalore

How often is the brinjal celebrated? Probably, a few times since the bt brinjal started threatening to flood the Indian market. But when an artiste chose to experiment with it, the brinjal proved to be quite a creative medium. A brinjal cooking contest to celebrate India’s crop diversity conceptualised by Zack Denfield, artiste in residence at Srishti School of Art Design & Technology saw a slew of tasty dishes, served along with interesting information about the core ingredient, brinjal, at Jaaga, an art space in Richmond Town.

Seven students, Aratrika De, Bidisha Das, Barath Jayarajan, Karthik Illango, Kavya Satyakumar, Sachin Gupta and Sayad Nooshin, worked with Denfield on this project. They borrowed interesting recipes of traditional Indian dishes like baingan ka bharta, yennegai badanekai and badanekai thokku, and also cooked up some novel ones. “The contest idea of came with the bt brinjal debate. But then, we didn’t want to talk for or against it, but just demonstrate the crop diversity,” says Jayarajan, who was surprised to find eight varieties of brinjal in the Bangalore markets.

Initially, the plan was to use four different varieties of the vegetable in each dish. But later they decided to experiment with two kinds per dish. The guests at the contest were asked to vote on the dishes, pick the most creative, most delicious and most tastefully presented one. The recipes of all the dishes served will go into a cookbook, which Denfield would present at an art and bioscience exhibition in Spain. “The recipe book is unlike the usual ones. This one will have a detailed description of the kind of brinjal used. Like, it is pear-shaped, is purple with light stripes and so on,” Jayarajan says.

“In about five years from now, bt brinjal may be the only kind in the market and people will forget that we had such a wide variety. Our idea is to create awareness about what is about to be lost,” he adds.


November 18, 2021 - December 12, 2021
Grafill, risography exhibition, Oslo, NO
October 24 - November 21, 2019
ClimATE, Aalto University, Espoo, FI.
March 1, 2018
Climate Fiction PT
October 21 - 29, 2017
Dutch Design Week: Embassy of Food
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Experiencing Food (Lisbon)
Nov. 5 - Apr. 2, 2016
2116: Forecast of the Next Century
Nov. 5th, 2016
KiKK Festival Workshop