The USDA recently approved a new, genetically modified purple tomato for cultivation in the U.S. The tomato is engineered to be high in anthocyanins, a purple pigment with antioxidant properties reported to have health benefits. The modifications have also increased the GMO's shelf life.
The purple tomato was created by scientists at Norfolk Plant Sciences in the U.K. It is a mixture of old and new: The purple tomato's longer shelf life echoes the characteristics offered by the first GMO approved for human consumption (also a tomato). Scientists used traditional GMO techniques to add snapdragon genes to a tomato, resulting in a dark-fleshed fruit with generous antioxidant levels. And those antioxidants, while new to the tomato, are frequently found in existing fruits and vegetables.
The purple tomato's story weaves together breakthroughs and encores — leaving us with questions about its usefulness.
The most common GMOs (think soy, corn, cotton, alfalfa) are engineered with traits that appeal to the farmer or manufacturer. For example, Roundup Ready crops can withstand multiple applications of glyphosate, making it easier to apply weedkiller to the crop (though using more weedkiller has its own problems. Many varieties of GMO corn produce their own insecticide, providing increased pest resistance (though the trait also has some negative impacts. Non-browning GMO apples are attractive in schools or hospitals where food is prepared hours before it is served (though there are non-GMO apples that resist browning.
On the other hand, the purple tomato joins a relatively short list of genetically engineered foods with traits designed to benefit the person who eats it. The GMO's color is due to added snapdragon genes that cause the tomato to produce anthocyanins — a pigment with antioxidant properties thought to have health benefits. Anthocyanins may help to reduce inflammation, protect against type 2 diabetes, or even fight cancer.
Purple flesh isn't the only novel characteristic of this GMO. Reports indicate plans to introduce the GMO at farmers' markets, where sellers can talk with interested eaters about the fruits proposed benefits. Furthermore, purple tomato seed could ultimately be made available to home gardeners — a significant departure from the restrictions faced by farmers who grow GMO commodities.
The purple tomato is also the first GMO to be deregulated under the new SECURE rule, which went into effect in 2020. The SECURE rule streamlined some aspects of GMO regulation, effectively removing many GMOs from USDA oversight, and was the first substantial revision of biotechnology regulation since 1987.
The genetically modified purple tomato is not the first genetically modified tomato. In fact, the first GMO ever approved for human consumption was a tomato — the Flavr Savr tomato, engineered for hardiness and longer shelf life.
Also, the purple tomato is not the first GMO whose modified traits promise a health benefit to the consumer. For example, the Sicilian Rouge tomato is engineered for higher levels of an amino acid believed to aid in relaxation and help lower blood pressure (the Sicilian Rouge is currently available only in Japan).
It is not the first purple tomato. Other varieties with deep, dark skin include heirloom Cherokee Purple or traditionally cross-bred Indigo Apple tomatoes. It is not the only food high in anthocyanins, either — berries, cherries, pomegranates, cabbage and eggplant are a few of the many excellent natural sources of anthocyanins.
This makes us wonder: Is a genetically modified, high-anthocyanin tomato really the best use of cutting edge science? Has the team at Norfolk Plant Sciences reinvented the wheel? Genetic modification is an expensive process that, in this case, delivers a niche product with a trait already found in various natural foods (more on that in a moment). Nevertheless, lead botanist Cathie Martin would like to expand the niche. According to an interview in Fast Company, Martin foresees applying the same process to "bananas, oranges, and countless other fruits."
In the meantime, you can reach for blueberries or blackberries if you'd like to increase your anthocyanin intake. Or try cabbage. Or pomegranates. Or grapes (grape juice and wine have benefits as well!) or eggplant. Also, purple carrots. Or black beans. Or cherries, elderberries, strawberries, chokeberries, açai, blood oranges, and so on.