'Super' plant could dramatically increase yields, help growers compete with China
By MITCH LIES
The thought in mint circles these days is it's only a matter of time before mint joins corn and soybeans as being produced largely from genetically modified plants.
Rob Croteau, a Washington State University biologist, said that's the only way mint growers can compete with producers in China and India, where labor and land costs are a pittance compared to costs in the U.S.
With funding from mint grower associations, Croteau has used genetic modification to develop what he calls a "super mint" plant that yields twice as much oil as current commercial varieties.
Croteau believes breeders easily could stack another gene onto the mix to boost yields another 25 percent.
If grower groups decide they want to pursue the higher-yielding genetically modified lines, Croteau said researchers could have mint lines ready for growers in a year or two.
"We have a good 10 years' experience of doing this," he said of the genetic breeding work, "so it should go pretty fast if grower groups decide they want to develop these lines commercially."
Regulatory hurdles could slow the release of the plants, he said. But in three to five years, Croteau believes growers could have access to the genetically modified plants.
Growers are debating whether to incorporate resistance to verticillium wilt into the mix, he said.
Verticillium fungi are extremely destructive to mint plants, are next to impossible to control and can survive in soil without a host for 10 years, he said.
The disease ran the mint industry out of the Midwest in the last century and has reduced ground available to mint in the Northwest, Croteau said.
Scientists have isolated genes that show resistance to verticillium in potatoes and strawberries. Croteau believes the verticillium resistance also could be incorporated into mint.
Tim Butler, chairman of the Oregon Essential Oil Growers League, said growers are concerned about consumer backlash to genetically modified mint.
But toothpaste and other products that use mint oil already contain sweetener from genetically modified corn plants, Butler said.
And, Croteau said, potential concerns over ingestion of genetically modified mint oil would be misplaced given that mint oil produced from genetically modified mint plants contains no biotech gene.
Only the plant contains the biotech gene, Croteau said.
Researchers are working to develop a marker gene to include in all genetically modified mint, Croteau said.
That would enable companies to use only mint from non-genetically modified mint plants if they so desire, he said.