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Apr 27, 2012

A History of Tomatoes Including Some GM Tomato Research Issues

Heirloom tomatoes
Photo: M. Boardman
On 27 April 2012, Science published an article on the history of tomatoes and their modern uses.  The author notes their origin in South America, perhaps Ecuador, Chile, Peru, or maybe even the Galapagos Islands.  Tomatoes were only slowly accepted into European cuisine but not in the 16th, 17th, or even 18th centuries.  This did not happen until the 1860's.

The article reviews botanical errors in classifying the tomato and its ability to be quickly hybridized into many different varieties.  By the 1990s this  had led to an increasing interest in how to better transport fresh tomatoes, which resulted in the first gene-modified (GM) Flavr Savr tomato.  Although the shelf life was extended, the flavor was not.  The public rejected this new product because it was unfamiliar and it did not taste or smell good.

Today, ongoing GM tomato research is focused on finding disease-resistant, pest-resistant, and bacteria-resistant varieties.  As tomato researchers have found out, "the genetics of a quantitative trait is hard to investigate. The effect of one gene is small and often influenced by environment or by the interaction with other genes. Many tomato traits are genetically controlled by a combined action of quantitative trait loci(QTLs) with favorable allelic genes found in wild species grown in Ecuador, Peru, Chile and even in the Galapagos." Other words, flavor is very hard to quantify.  So is tomato aroma, a scent the article's author expounds on.

"Annually 100 million metric tons of tomatoes are produced worldwide. The leading consumers are Mediterranean countries with 60-100 kg eaten per capita per year. The combination of poverty and lower popularity of the tomato elsewhere in the world creates an overall global annual consumption of only 14 kg/cap/y. The leading producers are China, US, India, Turkey, Egypt, Italy and Spain. Ironically, Italy has become China's largest customer for the type of tomato used to make tomato paste."

For more see: Uva, Erico. "Tomatoes: GM, Aroma And Tradition," Science, 25 April 2012.

About Margaret

CEO and Curator (The Food Museum) | Managing Director and Chief Editor (GR2 Global LLC) | Educator (UCLA PhD) | Researching and writing on global food issues, nutrition and health, sustainability, history (preservation), conservation (natural resources), and design.
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