Now reading The Quest to Make a Super Tomato

The Quest to Make a Super Tomato

Why do most tomatoes taste bad?

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Modern agriculture has massacred the tomato. The fruits that are available year round bear little resemblance in taste or appearance to their heirloom forebears. Farmers have selectively bred tomato plants to grow fast, resist pests, and produce a high yield of fruits that are hardy enough to survive the trek to your bodega. These traits are great for farmers and they ensure a steady supply of consistent tomatoes to consumers. But when it comes to taste, most consumers aren’t actually that keen on consumption of those tomatoes.

The problem is, most consumers don’t know any other way.

The life of a tomato is halted tragically early. They’re wrenched from the vine in their adolescence and fledged from their natal farms when they’re still green and hard as stones. Snipped from their vines, the fruit is never allowed to ripen in the field and develop the sugars and flavor chemicals that make them taste like something other than a verdant rock. Unfortunately, for large-scale commercial farming this is the only way. Imagine shipping squishy, perfectly ripe tomatoes across the county. They’d arrive sauced.

Once at their destination, green tomatoes are sprayed with ethylene gas that induces reddening and softening. Go to your grocery store and behold the pyramids of red, unblemished “tomatoes.” It’s all a lie. They’re just paperweights.

If farmers could somehow allow a tomato fruit to ripen on the vine and develop flavor without going soft, everyone would be happy. Farmers get high yield, consumers get a tasty product, and tomatoes everywhere could keep a shred of their integrity. It’s not a novel concept. By 1987, a biotech company called Calgene had come up with a hack to help the tomato. Long story short, they engineered a tomato to have less of a key enzyme involved in fruit softening.

“Calgene was very transparent about its GE (genetically engineered) tomatoes,” says Dr. Belinda Martineau, a former Calgene scientist. Martineau explained that each fruit was labeled with a sticker that said “Grown from genetically modified seeds,” they came with a brochure explaining the engineering process, and a 1-800 number to call with questions. “The grocer in my town had to ration them because they sold so fast,” Martineau recalls. They even sold gift baskets in the holiday season. Consumers loved them—GMO haters be damned.

Here’s the kicker: they still tasted like shit.

“We realized that the commercial varieties being grown at the time didn’t taste that great,” says Martineau. “Even if you grew them in your backyard and let them fully ripen on the vine, they wouldn’t have had great tomato flavor.”

Unless it’s a local heirloom varietal picked at the optimal time of year, big farm supermarket produce tends to be a lost cause regardless of the season. Tell that to the foodie who throws shade at your early-spring caprese.

Ultimately, Monsanto acquired Calgene and put the kibosh on the tomato operation. Alas, there are no GMO tomatoes on the market today. There are also no tomatoes that taste good either. Who can remember the tomatoes of yore? What even is a tomato? Perhaps our collective memory has grown too hazy to care.

Dr. Harry J. Klee cares. He’s got a plan to revive the tomato.

Klee and his team of researchers based at the University of Florida have figured out what, precisely, makes a tomato taste like a tomato. Using one hundred and fifty tomato varietals, an extensive taste testing panel, chemical analyses, and genome sequencing, they describe with laser accuracy the alchemy of acid, sugar, and scent that yields the best tomato, and all the genes responsible. It’s a tomato instruction manual—and Klee thinks he can use that instruction manual to build a better tomato.

“All of the consumer panels that we have done have identified the best average tomato across the entire population,” Klee explains. “It’s not like there’s one ideal tomato,” he says. Tastes tests showed that cultural differences and past tomato experiences altered expectations, too. How did you lose your tomato virginity? What were your mom’s tomatoes like? This is high-level, Freudian tomato theory. Complexity aside, Klee contends, “We came up with something that everyone would agree is a really good tomato.”

Their research also showed which genes are responsible for that tomato alchemy. “Knowing the genetics and chemistry of liking, you could fine-tune a tomato,” Klee says. “What we’re trying to do is combine the very best aspects of about four different heirloom varieties … in a single modern variety with good yield and good disease resistance.”

Before you start an anti genetic engineering picket line, here’s the thing about Klee’s tomato plans: there are no GMOs involved. It’s based on the same agricultural techniques that farmers have been using for millennia—the same ones that bred out flavor in lieu of high-yield, pest-resistant crops in the first place. Using the genomics and chemical instruction manual he’ll selectively cross plants in his lab. It’s like mutually beneficial arranged marriages between royal families. Klee reasons that he’ll be able to breed in summer heirloom flavor and adequate trucking-worthy firmness in just a handful of generations. They could be on supermarket shelves in a few years.

That’s impressive, but the next application of this advanced technology should be to create Xtreme Flavor Blasted tomatoes, right? All naturally, no GMOs, no flavor dust. We don’t seem to be satisfied with “normal” anything else, so why stop at returning the tomato to normal heirloom? So, Dr. Klee, could you bestow upon society this “Xtra Tomato” tomato?

“Boy, I don’t even know where to start,” he says. “I’ve never been asked that one from all of the hundreds of reporters…” Really? Because it’s, like, a pretty obvious next step to me.

“I could make the perfect tomato that would be better than anything you’ve ever had,” Klee says. “You could in theory dial in every single chemical that we know contributes to liking… and you might have that super tomato.” But, Klee reasons, a flavor blasted tomato probably wouldn’t taste that good either. There are optimum levels for all tomato cogs—take sugar content for example, with experimentally determined sweet spot of 11 percent. It’s critical for bouncy, summery flavor, but fractionally more than 11 percent becomes cloying. The same is true for the rest of the tomato puzzle pieces as well. Perhaps you can have too much of a good thing.

“It’s a big enough task just to bring back the modern tomato to where it was fifty years ago. Do we need to go beyond what the heirloom could deliver?” Klee asks. He’s got the power to bestow Xtra Tomato flavor, but it’s not necessary. He says, “Being able to provide heirloom flavor year round would in itself be that blast of flavor.”