Is the world ready for a GMO tomato?

10/08/2012 03:34:00 PM
Vicky Boyd

Vicky BoydEditor's Note: This is the Field Notes column, written by editor Vicky Boyd and published in the September-October 2012 issue of Citrus + Vegetable Magazine.

See related story: Transgenic tomato withstands bacterial spot, yields more fruit

If you would have posed that question to University of Florida tomato breeder Jay Scott back in the 1990s, he would have answered a resounding “yes.”

After all, Calgene had just released Flavr Savr, the first genetically modified crop.

Scientists at the now defunct Davis, Calif.-based company had taken a gene responsible for ripening in the tomato, flipped it to the “off” position and reinserted it.

Most consumers favored the transformation because they could buy truly vine-ripened tomatoes that still had shelf life. But Flavr Savr never really made it big because of inherent problems with the trait.

The world has changed and may not be as receptive to a GMO tomato as it once was. A small but very vocal group of opponents continues to play upon public fears to gain support of efforts to block genetically engineered crops.

Much of the outcry originates on the West Coast. The latest fray involves a group founded by a Chico, Calif., grandmother that has collected enough signatures to place an initiative on California’s fall ballot.

Proposition 37, as the measure is called, would require labeling of all products that contain a GMO, or genetically modified organism.

More than 95 percent of all soybeans are genetically modified as is more than 85 percent of all corn grown in the United States.

For the past 10 years, Scott has led a team developing a genetically modified tomato resistant to bacterial spot.

As its name implies, bacterial spot causes unsightly blemishes on tomato fruit and leaves and can devastate a crop.

The few products that growers can use to try to control the disease are mediocre at best. Many varieties of bell and hot peppers contain the naturally occurring Bs2 gene that resists bacterial spot.

But using conventional breeding techniques to try to breed the gene into tomatoes doesn’t work because tomatoes and peppers aren’t close enough relatives to successfully cross. So researchers turned to genetic engineering to take the Bs2 pepper gene and insert it into a tomato.

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Elizabeth Conley    
Virginia, US  |  October, 08, 2012 at 05:48 PM

I would be fine with a GMO tomato if it was labeled at sale. I just want to know it's GMO, so I can research how it was altered and decide if I'm comfortable with the alteration. I'm not afraid of the concept of GMO food, but I am wary of some specific modifications. I also strongly object to GMO seed manufacturers suing people who harvest their own seeds to use for subsequent crops. It's not the victims' fault that GMO seed polen has contaminated their crops. GMO has a way to go before it's acceptable. The producers need to prove each genetic modification is safe, and they need to stop abusing people who are simply harvesting their own seeds. Until these reasonable changes occur, GMO food isn't acceptable at my table. I'm ok with the existance of GMO food, but I don't want to be tricked into buying it before I can be certain it is safe to eat and ethical to support.

Kevin Folta    
Gainesville, FL  |  October, 09, 2012 at 11:31 AM

A few questions.. 1. Which "specific modifications" are you wary of? 2. This is a gene from pepper moved to its cousin, tomato. Does that bother you? 3. Companies don't sue over a few seeds. Classic cases were many acres, such as Schmeiser's 1100 acres grown and treated with Roundup. Plus, plant patents are not specific to GMO... just about every elite variety is patented and you cannot propagate for commercial use. I'm happy to answer any of your questions, just ask! I actually saw the tomato plants in this article and it is amazing. A huge step forward that will decrease environmental impact, help farmers and give less expensive products to the consumer. Alas, the anti-GMO folks don't REALLY care about the environment, farmers or poor consumers-- they are too entrenched in the dogma of their beliefs rather than the evidence from science.

angela faulkner    
west virginia  |  October, 09, 2012 at 09:35 AM

"More than 95 percent of all soybeans are genetically modified as is more than 85 percent of all corn grown " in the United States." this is true, but no one asked me if i wanted it. in fact, i was given about as much of a choice as a guinea pig. all i want is choice. isn't that the only voice the consumer has, her dollar? it seems to me that when these things go for a patent, the traits must make it so different that the non-GMO that it is patentable. but when they go to the market we're told "well they're not THAT much different". you can not have it both ways yet they still do. i support prop 37.

October, 09, 2012 at 01:27 PM

This article makes the Bs2 gene seem like a silver bullet for bacterial spot, but truth be told their are already races of Xanthomonus (4,5, and 6) that have overcome the genetic resistance. This is one of the limitations of breeding for vertical resistance in classical breeding -and all the more true in transgenic work. The resistance falls apart. Classical breeding in tomatoes can pyramid resistance to Xanthomonus creating horizontal, or durable, I fail to see the big gain of inserting this pepper gene other than - yes in areas where there are only race 1-3 it might help....but only until those races outevolve the gene. Then back to classical durable breeding.

Dr. Ricky    
Houston  |  October, 09, 2012 at 04:17 PM

Actually, you've always had a choice. Research for heirloom seed, and grow it yourself. Or ask to buy from farmers who do their due diligence. You misunderstand the patent system: 1. it isn't perpetual but reverts to the public when it lapses 2. It just has to be a significantly different and innovative process to encourage invention. Prop37 will actually penalize small farmers more, but lawyers will really make a killing with it.

Amber Reece    
Florida, USA  |  October, 10, 2012 at 09:41 AM

I support Prop 37. I hope it passes and the momentum carries across the US. GMO's have already been outlawed in 50 other countries. I am not willing to be a part of the genetic experiment subsidised heavily from the government. These companies(Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, etc.) are all deeply rooted in our government and they "scratch each other's backs" constantly. I support things being labeled truthfully and let the people of the US decide if they want to be a part. Because of modern medicine, there are so many genetic weaknesses in us humans that the amount of chemicals and any amount of genetic modification(not breeding) is only bound to make us weaker and sicker. Let's get back to small farms and less "pretty" produce but more healthful and nutricious food! Just say NO! to GMO'S!!!

leigh ann parent    
ocala,fl  |  October, 10, 2012 at 10:27 AM

Well put Amber!

JS JS    
Hawaii  |  October, 12, 2014 at 02:49 AM

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