Give Silenced Crops your Voice!

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The impact of the papaya ringspot virus in Hawaii

For decades, the people who depend upon papayas have been in trouble. One of their greatest challenges has been the devastating papaya ringspot virus, which has defied conventional approaches to management and eradication. In the 1980s and 90s, plant scientists turned to using biotechnology to create papaya plants that would resist the disease. In 1998, the first seeds of a genetically engineered Hawaiian papaya were planted by farmers, which quickly became a success story that rescued farmers from the destruction caused by the virus.

Other scientists around the world were working on similar approaches for the different papaya varieties that farmers grew in their countries. The viral strains they faced in each country were also different. Scientists in Thailand, Venezuela, and elsewhere worked on duplicating the Hawaiian success story. But these projects have not succeeded because of strong pressure from activists, including vandalism and destruction of research, threats, and silencing the voices of the scientists who were trying to help their own people – who depended on this tropical fruit. In the year 2000 the papayas in Venezuela were burnt to the ground.

Now we have a chance to hear the voices that have been silenced. A group of science communicators led by Guido Núñez launched a Kickstarter to support their documentary, Silenced Crops, which recently passed their minimum funding goal. With just 24 hours left to their fundraiser, you can still be a part of their effort to tell this story, and also get some benefits for yourself. We interviewed Guido so we could all learn more about his project. Read on, below!

1. Please tell us a little about yourself and your team.

We are a team composed by me, a computational biologist, Raúl Vegas, an entomologist and Sebastián Gamboa, a filmmaker. We are all from the Andean region of Venezuela, Raúl and I went to college together in Mérida and Sebastián is a mutual friend. II have been thinking about this documentary for many years, and I asked Raúl if he knew of a great film director, and he recruited Sebastián for the project. I am living between Santiago, Chile and Denver, Colorado, and Raúl and Sebastián live in Mérida. Our full team is:

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  • Executive producer: Guido Núñez;
  • Field Producer: Raúl Vegas;
  • Director and editor: Sebastián Gamboa;
  • Direction of photography: Marleny Salas y Sebastián Gamboa;
  • Sound Direction: Gherman Gil;
  • Graphic Design: Betzabeth Millano;
  • 2D Animation: Arturo Marquina;
  • Production in Caracas: Mariah Sosa;
  • Consultant: Kaori Flores;
  • Pictures: Katie Briceño;
  • Social media: Alena Luces and Raúl Vegas

2. What inspired you to investigate the Venezuela GM papaya story for a documentary?

I was at my first semester in the university when this incident happened. I saw first-hand the campaign of lies and rumors against the papayas and the scientists, I remember the terror of people in Mérida. I decided on that moment to fight against it, and even if I could not do a lot, I started writing scientific articles, giving talks, and I founded the first skeptical association of Venezuela when I was 18 years old. There are some obsessions that you cannot get out of your head, and this documentary is one of those, it is extremely unfair that the scientists never got to express their views in public. I have been thinking about it for years, but now I decided to make it happen, as the food crisis in Venezuela is a direct result of the same attitude to science (and economy) and experts that destroyed the papayas. I also was selected recently as a Fellow of the Cornell Alliance for Science, an initiative to change the public perception of science and educate the public about the benefits of biotechnology, and this project would complement my fellowship there.

3. Who does this issue affect the most?

This affects consumers the most, who get fruits of lower quality and farmer who get poor yields. Researchers were affected and persecuted, even for just writing favorably about biotechnology.

4. Who are you going to interview for the documentary? Do you have any plans to reach out to local groups who opposed the transgenic papaya?

A large part of the documentary is interviewing groups who still, in the middle of the crisis in Venezuela, insist that GM agriculture is not necessary. We will interview local farmers, one of the security guards of the project and of course the researchers who developed the papaya.

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Papayas infected with the ringspot virus, Thailand.

5. Did the papaya research in Venezuela stop altogether or is it still being worked on?

The genetic material of the papaya is frozen and locked, waiting for better times. The research, not only in papaya, but in GM plants, stopped in Venezuela. I actually ended up as a computational biologist because the research in GM plants was not pursued by the labs in my university.

6. What are some questions that you have about the Venezuelan GM papaya story that you hope to answer in your documentary?

I am curious to find out if the main promoters of the papaya incident are still in Venezuela and helping the farmers, or if they left the country and are not living the results of their actions. I want to know if the lives of the farmers are any better as a result of this, and we are going to do some social science research with the funds too to figure this out.

7. Who is your main audience for this documentary – who do you hope to reach with this story, and who needs to hear it the most?

We primarily hope to reach layman audiences who do not understand the consequences of science rejection and policy making based on ideology. We also want to reach anyone interested in the disaster happening in Venezuela these days, to tell the story of one of the first obvious mistakes of the Chavista government. To the anti GMO activists, I hope to reach them and show them that their actions have profound effects.

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Papaya Amigurumi, one of the rewards you can get by donating to their Kickstarter. Also available are DVDs, credits, and satisfaction.

8. Congratulations on passing your minimum funding goal of US $3,000! If you are able to raise more funds for this project, what more do you think you will be able to do with the project?

I intend to pay better salaries to our team. 3,000 USD is not a lot, even if it goes a very long way in Venezuela, but we are all working on this because we care deeply about the issue, because we want people to learn from our tragedy in Venezuela, so we’ll pay the team a bit more. A minimum wage in Venezuela these days is 12 USD a month, so every extra dollar will be able to help people there.

9. Finally, after the fundraiser is over, are there other ways that people can help you achieve your goals?

We are going to sell T shirts and mugs and we will keep accepting donations on PayPal.

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Some of their T-shirt designs

We thank Guido for taking the time to tell us more about his project! Now is your chance to lend your voice to the plight of papaya farmers, consumers, and scientists in Venezuela. I, for one, am donating $25 to get one of their cute Papaya Amigurumi knit plushies. As someone who has dabbled in plant plushies, I can appreciate the artwork!

It will be a challenge to get all the voices needed to make a good documentary that is true to the scientific facts, while also allowing for inclusiveness of the diverse people who are part of this story – many of who are not necessarily motivated by science but by conflicting values. I think, though, that sticking to the most universal values – such as the hardships borne by the people of Venezuela from the consumers and farmers to the scientists, and their hope for a better world will have the most impact. I already can’t wait to hear the voices of Venezuela that we will hear when we watch Silenced Crops.

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:

Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.

  • Eric Bjerregaard

    Fine job by Guido and his team. I am glad to see Karl and Biofortified help by publicizing his efforts.