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GM Tomatoes Don’t Taste Bad

Spear Thisle

Photo Dalboz17, Flickr

I can’t count the number of times I’ve run into someone either online or in person who is convinced genetic engineering makes food taste bad. “Just try an organically grown heirloom tomato,” they will say, “it’s so much juicier and tastier than those GM tomatoes you buy at the grocery store.” It is a great way to win support since many people listening to or reading those words will have had a similar experience tasting a oddly shapped and colored heirloom tomato and barely believing it to be the same fruit* as the perfectly shaped ones lining the aisles of every grocery store. Heck, even I agree they taste better, and I never grew out of not liking tomatoes in the first place. Score one for the opposition to genetic engineering. Or it would be if the tomatoes down at your local grocery store weren’t completely untouched by genetic engineering. GM Tomatoes don’t taste bad and you’ve probably never eaten one in your life

Unless you living in California in the 90s or are a grad student or corporate researcher who created them yourself, you (and I) have never tasted a genetically engineered tomato. If you lived in California there’s a small chance you were able to buy a flavr savr tomato, clearly advertised as such, before they went off the market, because of any health risk or consumer backlash (I’m told some stores had waiting lists for whenever a new shipment came in), but because they were costing four times as much to produce and distribute as they were selling for.

Similarly genetically engineered strawberries (another favorite target of anti-GMO activists) have never been sold to the public. The same for bananas** or apples, or pretty much any fruit of vegetable. Exceptions: any papaya grown in Hawaii probably carries a transgene giving it resistance to papaya ringspot virus. A couple of kinds of squash also were engineered with virus resistance traits, but I don’t know if they’re still sold. If you consider a potato to be a vegetable, for a few years there was a chance you might have eaten a herbicide resistant potato, however they’re not longer available***. And to the best of my knowledge that’s it for transgenic produce.

If the tomatoes down at your local grocery store are not as tasty as heirloom tomatoes (and they probably aren’t), please address your concerns to the plant breeders who created them using conventional breeding. They’ll tell you, correctly, that they breed for the traits farmers request. Those farmers get paid better for tomatoes that travel best over long distances than tomatoes that taste best, so those are the tomatoes they grow. Heirloom tomatoes don’t taste better because they’re old, or somehow more natural than modern breeds. They taste better because they were created by breeders, using the same tools and techniques as breeders today, at a time when flavor was valued over shelf life or appearance.

I’m sure I can speak for them when I say they’d love to create new tasty lines that also incorporate the best disease resistance and environmental stress traits, none of which, unlike self life and tavelling ability, are in conflict with flavor.<– Which means that those tomatoes would require less pesticides, meaning both more money for farmers and lowers prices to consumers(relative to heirlooms, not current grocery store tomatoes). But they can’t do that without two things: consumers who are willing to pay more for tastier tomatoes instead of prefering the prettier and/or cheaper tomatoes, and a new food distribution network that doesn’t require Oklahoma to import tomatoes from California. Because the same traits that make a tomato tasty mean it won’t be able to survive a journey across half a continent (at least without doing something clever with genetic engineering, and we all know how the public would react to that.)

Takeaway message. If you’re complaining about the taste of genetically engineered food, you should make sure it is actually genetically engineered first.

From the comments: For more on why breeding for flavor and breeding for storage and transportation ease don’t play well together, check out this great post over at the scientistgardener.

*A tomato is botanically a fruit, and since I’m a plant scientist I have to call it that, even though it definitely tastes like a vegetable.

**The change in the taste of bananas is actually because the bananas we eat today are an entirely different breed from those eaten in our grandparents childhood. As the bananas we’re used to are sterile, conventional breeding was able to do nothing when a fungal pathogen started wiping out the old tastier bananas. All they could do was find a different breed that looked and tasted sort of similar but was resistant to the fungus. The sad thing is if it happened today we could save the old bananas with genetic engineering, though I’m sure we would.

***This fact is misrepresented in “Supersize Me” when the girlfriend claims all the potatoes he’s eating are GMOs. In fact it was pressure by people like her on fast food restuarants, which in turn put pressure on farmers, that killed domand for gm potato seed, eventually leading to the end of production. Like wheat, potatoes were victims of still being in recognizable form when people sit down to eat it.

4 Comments

  1. Matt says:

    As you mentioned, a lot of the loss of flavor in modern tomatoes is due to higher priorities being placed on determinate, machine-harvestable, synchronous fruit that can be stacked 20 feet deep without breaking and shipped/stored for weeks – resulting in a pretty, perfectly round, red fruit that will stay fresh on the consumer’s countertop. Fresh market tomatoes, in nor cal, are all picked green and gassed with ethylene to force ripening (imperfectly). In the midatlantic, virtually all tomatoes have a natural gene mutation that prevents them from ever ripening completely in the first place. Either way, you end up with an inexpensive, pretty, red tomato that’s often hard and white on the inside. Heirloom varieties taste great, but are very susceptible to pests, have to be hand picked and turn to goo shortly after ripening.

    I wrote about the ripening inhibitor mutation a little here
    http://thescientistgardener.blogspot.com/2009/07/why-supermarket-tomatoes-have-no-taste.html

  2. Matt says:

    oh, and (can you tell I study tomatoes?), one of the previous traits that plant breeders emphasized was stem abscission so that the packed tomatoes wouldn’t all stab each other. Now that consumers have begun to perceive supermarket tomatoes as ‘artificial,’ they’ve developed small tomatoes that stick to their stems, producing those little branches of tomatoes ‘on the vine’ that are now in grocery stores.

    I think the public (at least in the tech-oriented US) will get on board with GMOs when they start to benefit from the traits – e.g. strawberries full of omega-3s that are resistant to botrytis gray mold.

    1. James says:

      What I worry about is that we’re caught in a chicken/egg situation where there’s no investment in GM traits beneficial to consumers (increased beneficial secondary metabolites, reduced spoilage, better taste, or eliminating allergens, etc) because it’s assumed health conscious consumers will reject anything genetically engineered, and health conscious consumers are, among other reasons, opposed to genetic engineering because they don’t see any benefits to them.

      And thanks for the tomato info! It’s strange the things that drive purchasing of fruit and vegetables. From, like you mentioned, slicing off part of the tomato plant and selling it along with the fruit, to breeding much smaller watermelons that people figure they’re more likely to eat in a single sitting, to the idea of selling “baby” carrots.

  3. Matt says:

    haha, yeah. I love the “baby” carrots especially. I’m sure most people assume they’re the youngest, most tender carrots when really they’re the oldest and gnarliest and have just been ground down.

    I’m optimistic about the GM situation. I don’t think the average American is very alarmist about this type of stuff, and is pretty easily convinced that new technology will make their lives better. We’ll see though…

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