Last month, the US Department of Agriculture issued a statement on a dazzling eggplant coloured fruit.
“The tomato was modified to alter its colour and enhance its nutritional quality,” the USDA wrote.
“We found the plant is unlikely to pose an increased plant pest risk compared to other cultivated tomatoes … that means, from a plant pest risk perspective, this plant may be safely grown and used in breeding in the United States.”
This purple tomato – and this response – is a pretty big deal. Now, only the Food and Drug Administration approval stands between the tiny UK team which created the vibrant, genetically modified (GM) plant and the US market.
It’s not the only purple tomato on the market, but it is engineered to have much higher levels of anthocyanins – which give plants their purple colour and have antioxidant properties – than traditional plant bred purple tomatoes.
“Our genetically engineered purple tomato makes anthocyanins (antioxidants) in its fruit because two genes from snapdragon plants were added using a well-established and understood technology adapted from nature,” the team behind the purple GM tomato – Norfolk Plant Science write in an FAQ on their website.
“This precise approach means that the rest of the tomato genome comes from domesticated varieties with good qualities for production, yield and flavour.”
Norfolk Plant Science or NPS is a spin-off from the John Innes Centre and The Sainsbury Laboratory in the UK.
“The US has a regulatory path for bioengineered crops like ours to get to market. Currently that is not possible in the UK or Europe. We established a US-based company, called Norfolk Healthy Produce, to market purple tomatoes,” Nathan Pumplin, the president of Norfolk Healthy Produce, told Cosmos over email.
“We have heard from people in the UK and throughout the world that they are very interested in our purple tomatoes, and other products that have been improved through bioengineering/genetic modification.”
Results are mixed on whether anthocyanins actually has any health benefits in humans, but a study done by plant scientist and purple tomato lead developer Professor Cathie Martin, as well as a team of researchers from the UK and Europe back in 2008, did find some interesting results.
Cancer susceptible mice that had diets supplemented by purple tomato powder, lived significantly longer than those on a standard diet or those supplemented with regular red tomato powder.
It’s important to note that animal studies don’t always translate to humans, but it does run counter to the ‘GMO is bad for you’ argument.
But despite many fears about the products waning, apart from processed foods, GM products have still struggled to enter the market.
The original GM tomato, the Flavr Savr released in the 90s which was grown to improve shelf life, was on the market for only three years before high costs forced production to stop.
In Australia the list is even smaller – the only GM plants grown in Australia are cotton, canola, and safflower. These are highly regulated, and none marketed to consumers. As far as I could find, we unfortunately never got to see the Flavr Savr Down Under.
“Certainly, for a while we were getting left behind,” says Professor Christopher Preston, a researcher in weed management and GM crops at the University of Adelaide.
“We had research groups working in Australia to produce products that were going to be useful for Australia’s agricultural sector, and the moratorium on the GM canola just really stopped a lot of that work because there was no path to market.
“We don’t have pink pineapples, non-browning apples and those sorts of things, partly because the companies who’ve got those look at Australia as being a difficult market.”
Australia does end up with plenty of GM food grown overseas – although most of it is for processed foods. But regulations are starting to shift, so there is a chance that we could end up seeing purple tomato juice or pink pineapples on our shelves.
Norfolk Plant Science has plans to take this one step further – eventually release seeds directly to consumers, so that home gardeners can also grow the violet or plum coloured fruits.
So where does this leave Australia? Are Australian consumers open to the idea of a GMO purple tomato? Either imported from overseas or as seeds for their backyard?
Preston says although we can’t know for sure, there are some signs that consumers would be open to it.
“I think what’s happened is it’s become a lot more familiar to people,” says Preston. “We started growing GM canola in Australia and the sky didn’t fall in.”
Last year, the New South Wales government lifted an 18 year moratorium on GM crops, meaning that every Australian state but Tasmania now allows the growth of genetically modified plants. South Australia lifted the ban the year before.
Only a few years ago Australia introduced the GM safflower, and Preston suggests that farmers can’t grow enough of it.
“There is just so much demand for that now. In Australia we’re finding it hard to grow enough to meet the demand. We probably wouldn’t have seen that coming in 10 years ago.”
Queensland researchers have also been working on a genetically modified, fungus resistant version of the Cavendish banana. After extensive tests in a fungus infected area in Northern Territory, the GM bananas showed strong resistance to the fungus – called TR4 – and the team are now applying for patents internationally.
But when it comes to planting the seeds of exciting GM fruit like the purple tomato in a home garden, Preston suggests the current regulations surrounding GM plants in Australia would make it difficult.
“This complex intermesh of regulation management we have in Australia is not really set up to deal with something like planting purple tomatoes into home garden. It’s not that it couldn’t be, it’s just not set up to be at the moment,” says Preston.
“If the purple tomato was to come into Australia, it would take some time before it would be widely distributed. There’d have to be some sort of management of the crop in the initial phases for commercial growers.”
So, although Australia might be missing out on purple tomatoes for now, if regulatory systems can change it might not be too far away before we start to see a myriad of colourful GM foods on our shelves or even our home gardens.
Jacinta Bowler is a science journalist at Cosmos. They have a undergraduate degree in genetics and journalism from the University of Queensland and have been published in the Best Australian Science Writing 2022.
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