02 July 2012

Yummy Vegan GMO Tomatoes

Happy Tomato
Like many other rationally-minded vegans, I approve of GMOs.  After all, I have personally genetically engineered bacteria, so I have a broader understanding than many J. Q. Publics out there.  I understand that traditional breeding practices are genetic manipulation, just primitive, imprecise, and unpredictable.  This is often hard to explain to people, especially when they are defensive and reactionary.

However a recent news story came to my attention that highlighted how GMOs can be a good thing, and in a way that any random dude can understand.  To summarize, traditional genetic manipulation has given us crappy supermarket tomatoes which pale to fresh summer tomatoes from the garden.  Personally I'm not a tomato lover, unless it's made into marinara or ketchup, but I know I am in a minority on that.

You may say that the problem with tomatoes these days is an issue of goals and not methods.  Tomato breeders have wanted fruit that is primarily durable and disease resistant, and taste is a low priority.  If breeders focused on taste we'd be OK.  However, some of the genes for desired traits, such as uniform ripening, are the same genes that cause poor flavor.  It's almost impossible to breed your way out of that situation.  With engineering many, many versions of the gene quickly can be tried until one allows for both flavor and uniform ripening.  To do that with traditional breeding you'd have to sift through mutations of all of the ~35,000 genes in the tomato's genome.

This brings to the next point, which is if we can identify the desired genes for disease resistance, color, flavor, and all that, we can easily engineer it all into one tomato.  We could have that perfect yummy tomato within years.  However, if we have to breed it 'by hand' it will take decades or longer.  Sure, nothing will replace picking a tomato from the plant in your windowbox at the peak of ripeness on a summer day, but when you're desperate for a splash of red on your sandwich in November, shouldn't that tomato be good-tasting too?