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.
In several years of field trials, Scott and his colleagues have found that the transgenic tomato can be successfully grown without copper—one of two main bactericides—and produces twice the yields.
Not only would this be a boon to growers, but it also would yield significant environmental benefits since copper can build up in the soil, causing toxicity at high enough levels.
If you just look at this technology’s environmental benefits alone, it’s a no brainer.
Drilling down further, it’s not like the researchers are using genetic material from a totally unrelated species, like a squid or a yak.
The gene is from a pepper, which belongs to the same plant family as tomatoes.
If you were to eat salsa, chances are you’d be consuming the Bs2 gene found in hot peppers and tomatoes together in one mouthful.
The Bs2 tomato is still several years from the market, and let’s hope common sense will be leading the GMO debate by then.