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?


  1. Thanks for the shout-outs! This is a good example of how genetic engineering can help but also I think cisgenics is an easier concept to accept for the lay-person. Once you cross into transgenic (trans-phobia?!) territory though, it seems all the years of b-movies suddenly manifest into reality for them.

  2. Nicely put. The same thing applies to all crops, not just tomatoes. Breeding priorities are shipability, shelf life, yield, disease resistance. True for most crops. Attributes like flavor are down the line. After 50 years of improvement fruits and veggies don't taste so hot.

    Today there is a new focus on reclaiming flavors. They are out there-- in the wild, unimproved plants or in old varieties that can't be used in production. To breed the traits in takes years, or decades if you are talking trees.

    Moving a gene at a time through transgenics may be a way to make this happen on a much shorter time frame. That is starting to happen as I type.... literally!

  3. I really don't get the problem with most GMO plants. I don't like IP and litigation that seems to be hand in hand with GMO, but the foods themselves don't bother me! There was an interesting piece on NPR about tomatoes and the features that make for tasty ones (and how they became victims to the quest for a supermarket tomato). It was pretty interesting, too.

  4. No mention of agrobacter conjugation or transposons.

  5. The reason I avoid GMOs where possible is because in practise, the most common modification is to make a plant pesticide and/or herbicide resistant, and then to pile on many times the amount of 'cide that would be practical otherwise. A health and ecology disaster.

    I'd support responsible genetic modification done with the bigger picture in mind. But I know I just can't trust big companies to do that.

  6. Sophia: it sounds like you have a problem with conventionally-grown (non-organic) produce and not GMOs. Unfortunately the anti-GMO hysteria has made it illegal for any GMOs to be labeled organic, so the roundup-ready stuff is lumped in with the more benign stuff.


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