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Friday, 28 May 2010 06:56

Tomato Lovers Unite! NPR Spot Disgracefully Caters to Supermarket Needs for New Frankenfoods, Not Our Taste Buds

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BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
by Meg White 

My garden started a little late this year, but my five varieties of heirloom tomato plants (plus a tomatillo) are really looking promising already. I can almost taste the fresh burst of flavor that's been missing from my diet for months on end. Every sorry winter salad with a pink tomato slice laying limply on top was another reminder of how important farmers markets and my own garden would be to my taste buds this summer.

So, my ears perked up when I heard talk of efforts to "restore the supermarket tomato to something that tastes more like a tomato than a piece of cardboard" coming from my radio this morning. Of course I should have known something was amiss when the next sentence noted that the effort would require "a combination of psychology and genetics."

The National Public Radio report consisted of a visit to the University of Florida at Gainesville to visit a scientist working to boost the concentration of chemicals called "volatiles" in tomatoes without reducing the yield. See, factory farmed tomato plants are selected for their huge yield and the fruit's tough exterior, so that farmers can get as many un-squished tomatoes to the supermarket as quickly as possible. But that also means that wonderful tomato taste gets diluted when one plant has to share all its nutrients and sugars with so many fruits.

The scientist told NPR reporter Joe Palca that by splicing genes, the title of the story -- "Taking Tomatoes Back To Their Tasty Roots" -- could be accomplished much faster than in traditional plant attribute selection.  

That's funny, because I thought I had been after the very same end, but I didn't need a lab or psychological tricks. Just some healthy soil, sun and water and I could be almost absolutely sure to get something that doesn't taste like soggy cardboard. (In fact, my heirloom seeds were even free. I got them from this awesome nonprofit seed collective out of New York called Wintersown, though they weren't totally gratis as I did send them a donation.) 

My sense of moral superiority in the backyard aside, there is some serious media criticism to be laid here. Why didn't Palca talk to anyone who's into heirlooms, or who has an issue with the safety of genetically-modified food? Instead, he munches tomatoes and supposes that "tomato-loving world will be waiting anxiously" for the results of such experimentation. 

I'm all for experimentation in college. That's what it's there for, and I would much rather have academic scientists in Florida developing open-source seeds than Monsanto and the like cooking up new seeds while tucked away in secretive labs and forcing farmers to sign their lives away if and when they decide to adopt corporate GMO seed. There are those who truly believe that the development of GMO seeds is the only way to solve the international food crisis. While I disagree with the assertion, I don't believe in limiting honest research because of it.

But this story was not about modifying seeds in order to feed a growing population of undernourished people. In fact, it seems from what the researcher was saying, that the tomatoes were being modified to taste better, but not to contain more nutrients or even more sugars. I'm no biologist, but I think that whole "psychology" piece of the story was about tricking our brains into thinking we're getting a more nutritious product than we actually are.

No, this radio spot was supposed to be about the informal society of tomato lovers, of which I consider myself an avid member. And as any of my distinguished colleagues can tell you, the best way to get "tomatoes back to their tasty roots" is to let them be tomatoes. It's just sad that you have to have access to a garden or farmers market to do something as simple as that.

Now if you'll excuse me; my plants are thirsty.

BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS