Expert response from Kevin Folta
Professor and Chairman, Horticultural Sciences Department, University of Florida
Wednesday, 08/21/2013 17:51
First, there are no GMO tomatoes on the market. The famous “Flavr Savr” GM tomato of the 90’s was gone before Y2K.
There, question answered! But let’s look at this a little deeper. Why do tomatoes taste, boring?
New varieties of tomatoes are developed through traditional breeding. A breeder has to evaluate thousands of lines from a genetic cross to find one winner, so you can imagine the huge expense and resources used.
That said, tomatoes in breeding programs are not selected by breeders based on sensory traits like aroma and flavor, at least they haven’t been. Breeders now have to prioritize how well they ship and store. They are interested in uniform size, shape and color. Breeders are highly interested in disease resistance, both on the plant and the fruit. In short, there are a lot of traits a good tomato has to have long before flavor is even considered.
The production system for bulk tomatoes does not help either. Most are picked green and then ripened using ethylene gas, a compound usually produced naturally by the ripened fruit. Ripening is artificially induced, so you don’t get the usual balance of sugars, acids and volatiles you get when you grow one at home.
At this point I’ve blamed unremarkable tomato flavor on genetics and production. What’s up next for tomato flavor?
Researchers here at the University of Florida led by Dr. Harry Klee have identified the natural compounds in tomatoes that consumers like. This information can help breeders make better decisions about what plants to use in crosses to select the best genetics to improve taste http://www.cell.com/current-biology/abstract/S0960-9822(12)00408-3
These findings will pave the way for faster breeding of better tomatoes. Learn more from this New York Times article.
GMO will eventually help the process. A tomato line carrying a gene from pepper (a tomato cousin) is resistant to bacterial wilt. This disease requires substantial application of copper sulfate to manage it. Keeping copper (a heavy metal) out of the environment would be a nice benefit of this GMO technology. http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0042036
If disease is controlled by adding a transgene, then breeders can focus on flavors! I LOVE tomatoes and I think the future looks bright for higher-quality products thanks to science.
How GMOs are Researched, Developed and Tested
Learn how plant biotechnology works through the scientists who research, develop and test GMO crops at Dupont.