Roseanne Barr is an American actress perhaps most well-known for her role in the TV-show Roseanne (1988-1997). The show tackled many important issues such as obesity, race, class, feminism, domestic violence and LGBT rights. Since then, Barr has run for President for the Peace and Freedom Party in 2012 and become a prominent social activist.
However, dark clouds started appearing on the horizon. In July of 2012, Barr asserted that people who eat at the fast food restaurant Chick-fil-A chain deserves to get cancer (see the tweet conversation below that tweet). This was in response to public statements made by Dan T. Cathy disapproving of same-sex marriage. While same-sex marriage is an important social issue to defend and opponents will find themselves on the wrong side of history, it is both ethically and scientifically dubious to say that people who get cancer deserves it. It is also ironic that Barr claims to be against racism and classism when things like poverty and discrimination being “obstacles to receiving health care services related to cancer prevention, early detection, and high-quality treatment” (American Cancer Society, 2013, p. 43) for ethnic minorities. Later the same year, she came under fire again for making transphobic remarks, presumably because of Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein’s support for trans rights (Barr lost the Green Party nomination to Stein). Some commentators pointed out the hypocrisy of claiming to take class issues seriously at the same time as discriminating against trans women who cannot afford gender reassignment surgery.
Recently, I replied to a tweet by an anti-GMO activist calling for the ban on genetically modified foods on Hawaii by pointing out that biotechnology saved the Hawaiian papaya industry in the 1990s from almost complete collapse by engineering the papaya to be resistant to the papaya ringspot virus (PRSV). The anti-GMO activist was apparently not aware of this, so she retweeted me @TheRealRoseanne. Barr, who had apparently become an anti-GMO activist herself, tweeted this (webcite) in reply:
There is one big problem with that claim: the papaya ringspot virus was first reported on the Hawaiian island of Oahu in 1945. Transgenic papaya was not released in Hawaii until 1998.
In fact, phylogenetic analysis puts the origin of the PRSV version that infects papayas at 500 years ago (concurrent with the arrival of the papaya in the region including Indian and China). Unless multinational corporations traveled 500 years back in time, there is no way that GMOs or GM corporations caused or created PRSV.
It is very important to understand how badly the PRSV virus damaged the Hawaii papaya industry. In 1956, Oahu grew 243 ha papaya and after just twelve years, it had declined to less 16 ha. The papaya production largely moved to the Puna district, where it grew around 25000 ton papaya per year (~95% of the entire papaya production on Hawaii). PRSV reached Puna in 1992 and within just three years, it managed to almost completely shut down commercial production of papaya in the district.
Scientists inserted a single gene into the papaya to make it resistant to PRSV and produced two major lines of PRSV-resistant papaya (called “SunUp” and “Rainbow”). This gene produces an mRNA that is complementary to the mRNA of the virus coat protein. These two mRNAs anneal to each other and the resulting complex degraded by the plant using its natural defense system. This has two consequences: (1) the virus cannot produce coat protein and therefore does not spread from an infected cell and (2) the mRNA degradation enables the plant to perform a targeted destruction of viral coat mRNA.
Thus, researches saved the papaya on Hawaiian. This solution was so successful that in 2010, 80% of all papaya produced in Hawaii was genetically modified (Ronald and McWilliams, 2010). For additional information about the historical, biological and societal aspects of PRSV, please see papers by Tripathi et al. (2008), Bateson et al. (2002), Ferreira et al. (2002), Gonsalves (1998), Fermin et. al (2004) and Tripathi et. al (2007).
Presumably, Barr made a knee-jerk reaction against everything related to GMOs because she dislikes big corporations (she has previously referred to Monsanto as “Monsatan”). However, that has nothing to do with the GM technology itself or the well-tested products made from it. Those are two completely separate issues just like disliking Starbucks is not in itself an argument against coffee.
Roseanne Barr is dangerously misguided with respect to GM technology and products and her disdain for large corporations bleeds over into an irrational hatred of GMOs.
As a public intellectual, Barr has an intellectual responsibility and should not abuse her own fame to spread pseudoscience about GMOs.
References and further reading
American Cancer Society. (2013). Cancer Facts & Figures 2013. Atlanta: American Cancer Society.
Bateson, Marion F., Lines, Rosemarie E., Revill, Peter, Chaleeprom, Worawan, Ha, Cuong V., Gibbs, Adrian J., & Dale, James L. (2002). On the evolution and molecular epidemiology of the potyvirus Papaya ringspot virus. Journal of General Virology, 83(10), 2575-2585.
Tripathi, Savarni, Suzuki, Jon Y., Ferreira, Stephen A., & Gonsalves, Dennis. (2008). Papaya ringspot virus-P: characteristics, pathogenicity, sequence variability and control. Molecular Plant Pathology, 9(3), 269-280.
Ferreira, S. A., Pitz, K. Y., Manshardt, R., Zee, F., Fitch, M., & Gonsalves, D. (2002). Virus Coat Protein Transgenic Papaya Provides Practical Control of Papaya ringspot virus in Hawaii. Plant Disease, 86(2), 101-105.
Gonsalves, Dennis. (1998). Control of Papaya Ringspot Virus in Papaya: A Case Study. Annual Review of Phytopathology, 36(1), 415-437.
Fermín, Gustavo, Tennant, Paula, Gonsalves, Carol, Lee, David, & Gonsalves, Dennis. (2004). Comparative Development and Impact of Transgenic Papayas in Hawaii, Jamaica, and Venezuela. In L. Peña (Ed.), Transgenic Plants: Methods and Protocols (Vol. 286, pp. 399-430): Humana Press.
Tripathi, Savarni, Suzuki, Jon, & Gonsalves, Dennis. (2007). Development of Genetically Engineered Resistant Papaya for papaya ringspot virus in a Timely Manner. In P. Ronald (Ed.), Plant-Pathogen Interactions (Vol. 354, pp. 197-240): Humana Press.