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Why You’ll Always Have To Grow Tomatoes

... or buy them from your small, local organic farmer. Answer: that homegrown, heirloom tomato flavor.

Homegrown Tomatoes“It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato.” — Lewis Grizzard

on efforts to produce a tastier commercial tomato is, frankly, sad. We all know the (PDF): they’re bland if not completely tasteless. Compare them to the most mediocre tomato grown in someone’s back yard and that mediocre tomato shines by comparison. Compare them to any decent, heirloom tomato from your garden or a small, local, organic farmer and, well, there’s no comparison.

Not only do homegrown and small farm organic tomatoes taste better than commercial tomatoes, they have .

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When’s the last time you had a fresh, great tasting tomato from the supermarket?

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So you have to feel bemused if not sorry for professor Harry Klee at the University of Florida’s program. Sure, his goals are admirable: he’s trying to “build” a better supermarket tomato. That means more flavor. And there’s nothing wrong with that. And he’s going about it very scientifically. He extracts the “flavor compounds” in tomatoes, separates their various components, and then studies them genetically in an attempt to duplicate them in commercial tomatoes. While he studies the genetics of these tomato components, he isn’t out to genetically modify tomatoes. Instead he uses standard hybridization techniques, albeit in the laboratory, in an attempt to create commercial tomatoes with improved taste.

And there’s the rub. Dr. Klee is trying to retain all the traits developed over the years that commercial growers love–firmness, a slightly square shape (allowing for denser packing), shipping and survivability traits, enticing red color (even when the insides aren’t ripe), and long shelf-life. These trait all compromise flavor (so far). It’s estimated that even Dr. Klee’s best attempts will only be 75% as flavorful as a common tomato grown in the family garden. And then there’s the loss of flavor suffered by tomatoes from refrigeration during shipping.

You might say that Dr. Klee is on a fool’s mission. Will he really be able to keep large agricultural growers happy considering the fact that they haven’t seemed to care about flavor up until now? Will they compromise on anything to gain a little more flavor? As the article says, “As growers are paid by the pound, a better-tasting but less productive tomato holds little economic appeal.”

None of this is to disparage Dr. Klee. He was to the National Academy of Sciences for his research and his ultimate goal — to encourage people to eat more nutritious foods (like tomatoes) — is a worthy one. But even some of his colleagues are skeptical. “I don’t think the taste of tomatoes is going to be fixed by molecular biologists,” said , a professor at The Ohio State University who has bred and released several tomato varieties, “because flavor is a lot more complicated than manipulating one or two genes.” In other words, it’s like taking apart a watch to see what makes it tick. Once you lay out all its various parts, all you have is silence.

And while Dr. Klee isn’t planning to genetically modify tomatoes to reach his goal, he is using genetically -modified tomato plants to test what he determines to be true. If I were him, I wouldn’t let catch wind of it. Oh wait . . .

The important thing to remember here is that we already have sources of healthy, nutritious, and delicious tomatoes. Right now, America’s gardens are bursting with rich red ripe tomatoes (okay, if you live in Zone 4, those tomatoes may still be green). And Farmer’s Markets across the country are overflowing with heirloom tomatoes just waiting for the slicing. Sure, they might not be perfectly and evenly red. Some of them may be green or striped and some like the violet jasper may have a ruddy unevenness. But sliced out on a plate and topped with a shaving of Parmesan and some basil leaves they just might be the most beautiful thing you’ve seen this summer other than you wife and children. And taste? No comparison.

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3 Responses to “Why You’ll Always Have To Grow Tomatoes”

  1. draftmama on November 22nd, 2013 at 3:13 pm #

    Our mystery ginormous heirloom tomato which we got by mistake from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (was supposed to be Jersey Giant) is ready for its fourth year in the Helena Valley. “The best tomato I’ve ever tasted” everyone says. Wouldn’t last a couple of days in a supermarket, but its gradually acclimating itself to Montana and we’re spreading the joy by saving lots of seeds each year. I’ll give Eric some seeds to try!!

  2. sydigital on July 29th, 2014 at 9:05 am #

    It baffles me how people are so arrogant to think they can comprehend God’s design. No amount of scientific research will ever come close, and all attempts to modify His perfect creation only degrade it, and destroy us in the process. Why can’t people just leave food alone? …Oh yeah… profit. *sigh*

  3. Debra on July 29th, 2014 at 9:56 pm #

    I love to grow, tend to, treat, and EAT homegrown organic tomatoes. No More GMO. Unless that means : GROW MORE ORGANICS.

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