Saving the flavors of centuries: against Flavr Savr and the genetic engineering of taste

Several years ago, in its “Retro Report” section, the New York Times posted an old video about the genetically modified Flavr Savr tomato, which was developed by Calgene and launched on to the market in 1994 – only to be withdrawn a few years later. The video includes clips of a television program from the time. An intrigued woman is shown two tomatoes picked 30 days earlier, neither of which has been refrigerated. The first tomato is perfect: round, bright red and with no signs of softening. The second has wrinkly skin and a dulled color, clearly rotten. The perfect tomato is a Flavr Savr, engineered to maintain the texture, juiciness and color of a freshly picked tomato for longer. However, despite its apparent perfection and characteristics which, from a commercial point of view, should have certainly made it a success, the Flavr Savr vanished not long after it appeared. Why? Because it was missing the one feature more important than any other: flavor.

Fast forward to today, and the latest cover of Science magazine features “Tastier Tomatoes”, which hints at the research being conducted by a large group of scientists to design a truly perfect tomato with the texture, juiciness and color of a freshly picked tomato, and indeed, the flavor of heirloom tomato varieties.

The premise of the study is that modern commercial tomato varieties are substantially less flavorful than heirloom varieties. Over time, agricultural research has focused on improving the characteristics that determine whether different varieties are commercially successful: yield, disease resistance and firmness. All at the expense of flavor. Often, the tomatoes we buy taste of nothing. They seem like fake fruit, all too perfect to look at, but flavorless. To fix this fault, the team of scientists have studied the characteristics that most affect the flavor of the product, sequencing the whole genome of 398 modern, heirloom and wild varieties. They then selected 160 tomato samples from 100 varieties and grew them in the laboratory, harvested them and submitted them to extensive taste testing by 100 people. The participants voted for the tomatoes based on flavor and, by comparing this information with their genetic analyses, the scientists determined which genes were associated with flavors that the public enjoyed.

Is a new future taking shape for a fruit that the FAO considers to be one of the most high-value in the world? Maybe. A laboratory-made future, completely removed from the land and restricted by private patents, like all genetically modified products. Slow Food on the other hand, supports a different kind of research, namely what farmers have been doing for around 10,000 years: selecting seeds, conserving them, propagating them and developing varieties suited to different soils and climates, based on traditional knowledge. Work that, over centuries, improves the yield, flavor and nutritional value of crops, without compromising biodiversity and, on the contrary, gradually enriching it.

Examples of these crops are cataloged in the Ark of Taste and among Slow Food Presidia: the Platense tomato from Argentina which, despite its far superior flavor compared with commercial tomatoes, has to deal with intense competition from high-yield hybrid varieties that can be produced all year round; the Smooth Skin Geraldton tomato from Australia, which is suffering due to the appearance of greenhouses in Melbourne and Adelaide which enable tomato production all year round; Kurtovo Konare pink tomatoes, whose survival is under threat from foreign varieties with higher yields that are more suited to being transported; and the Torre Canne Regina tomato, grown without irrigation using organic methods in Apulia, which faces almost unbeatable commercial competition from greenhouse-grown cherry tomatoes. We could mention dozens of other such examples of tomatoes that farmers have developed over centuries through careful selection, rather than artificially engineered in the laboratory. And we would prefer a future where the value of naturally flavorful tomatoes is appreciated once more.

Images: Science Magazine, Western Gardens

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