Plant Pathology Professor Michael Goodin’s office is crammed with the usual texts and papers, but also with a multitude of coffees and teas acquired during his frequent travels. On a tiny table sits his “coffee laboratory,” where he invites visitors to taste test some of the finest coffees the planet produces. A conversation with Goodin is an enlightening experience, often punctuated with his joyful peals of laughter.

Michael Goodin

Michael Goodin

Q: You seem to embrace discovering different cultures.
A: I was born and raised in Jamaica. My mother is Canadian. My father did his undergraduate work at the University of Toronto, and my mother was a librarian. He was penniless, so he found it better to date the librarian than to pay his library fines. (He laughs.) In the early '80s, we moved to Canada. I did high school there and undergraduate work at Brock University with a double major in biology and chemistry.

Q: When did the agriculture bug bite?
A: My dad had a friend who I call Uncle Warren. Uncle Warren was a civil servant, but his real love was agriculture. His passion was papaya. These were like a foot long and weighed 5 lbs., not like these little things you see in the grocery. One day we get this call from Uncle Warren, and he’s in tears. We drive to his farm, and he takes us to the papaya grove; the trees have no leaves, no fruit. He’d gotten papaya ring spot virus. That virus eliminated production in Jamaica of that classical, traditional papaya variety that had been growing forever. That sort of imprinted in my memory.

Q: Is that why you chose plant pathology as a career?
A: It's 1992, '93, I’m in grad school (at Penn State), and Dennis Gonsalves at Cornell University develops the transgenic papaya, a papaya resistant against the papaya ringspot virus. And I thought, “Suppose Uncle Warren had had these transgenics. He would have been able to sustain as a farmer.” It doesn’t require any chemicals. The plants are immune to the virus. The shelf life of the fruit is longer. It tastes the same. I was a naïve grad student, and I thought, “People are going to love GMOs. Isn’t this going to revolutionize agriculture!” (His laugh rips through the room.) I’ve been wrong about a couple of things in my life.

Q: It has revolutionized agriculture.
A: Yeah, but not in the way it should have. I think the conversation on GMOs has to change. This technology is too important to not use. We have, for decades, been able to engineer resistance to four major pests and pathogens of the potato, but we've never utilized that technology.
Because we haven't, we’ve maintained one of the most chemically intensive crop systems in the United States.

Q: You once said, “Y'all need to eat each other's food!” To you, it seems food is about more than just filling your stomach.
A: It's the one thing that unifies us all. You want to learn about somebody? Go eat their food. Ever since we walked out of the Olduvai Gorge and spread around the world, it's been a search for food. Cultures are defined by their food systems. That's another reason to change, because the ultra-processed American diet is not a good one to have a conversation over. I think if you design the food system right, it lifts you up, it's positive, it's something that's a celebration.