The purple tomato: a waste of time?

By Patrick Brennan

Early January saw news of a new kind of genetically modified tomato heading to our shores from Canada. This variety has been engineered by scientists from the University of Norwich to include a blue pigment found naturally in blueberries, the addition of which turns the tomato purple. The pigment, known as anthocyanin, has numerous health benefits, and has even been shown to halt cancer growth in animal tests.

Purple Tomatoes

But could you ever be persuaded to eat a genetically modified purple tomato? Even in the knowledge that eating it would be perfectly safe for you and for the environment?

GM technology has never been far from controversy. Europe is especially fearful of the subject, with a recent survey showing that only 1 in 4 Europeans are ‘for’ genetically modified crops. It is this attitude that led Professor Cathie Martin, developer of the purple tomato, to carry her work out in Canada, where regulations are less oppressive.

It is hardly surprising this attitude exists, especially with a title as ominous as ‘genetic modification’. Genetics are, of course, the fundamental code determining an organism’s entire being. In the eyes of many, one may as well name it ‘personality re-writing’ or even ‘soul-tampering’.

However this public perception of GM technology is undeserved, harmful, and is blinding us to what is in fact a very safe and useful technology.

Far from changing an organism’s entire being, genetic modification simply takes an existing species and allows it to exhibit an extra desired trait, usually with aims to increase crop yield or provide extra nutrients. Eating a GM vegetable is no more dangerous to humans than eating the original, whilst also eating a little of whatever chemical the GM variety produces.

The purple tomato is a terrible mascot for GM technology, and all its potential, simply because it serves no purpose.

In the case of our new friend the purple tomato, eating this GM variety is no more dangerous than eating a regular tomato whilst simultaneously drinking some blueberry juice.

This does, however, raise a very valid issue. Why invest thousands in producing a tomato with the health benefits of a blueberry, when it is much cheaper to simply persuade people to eat more blueberries? The fact of the matter is this: there is no gap in the food market for a purple tomato, no matter how healthy it is.

The purple tomato is a terrible mascot for GM technology, and all its potential, simply because it serves no purpose. No one has ever asked for a healthier tomato – they are already pretty healthy as they are.

If GM technology is to gain the reputation it deserves, the general public must be alerted to the examples of genetic modification that have provided, or could provide solutions to world issues.

A good example is the ‘Golden Rice’ project, in which biologists engineered rice plants to contain beta carotene, a molecule which is converted into vitamin A in the body. An estimated 670,000 children die every year from vitamin A deficiency; importing vitamin A into their rice crop provides an effective solution. Golden Rice perfectly showcases GM technology‘s potential to save millions of lives.

Research is also being carried out, in Durham among many other institutions, into the effects of genetic modification on oil-producing crops for use in the biofuel industry. With crude oil reserves dwindling, much emphasis is being placed on plant-derived fuels as a clean renewable alternative, and GM technology allows biologists to drastically improve production rates of biofuel products such as triglycerides and ethanol.

In this case GM technology is a powerful tool for both study and production: it can be used to determine which reactions are important in a plant’s oil production pathway.

By engineering different plant strains that either over-express or under-express certain enzymes and then measuring yield in each, it can be determined which enzymes are most crucial to bio-oil production. This in turn allows scientists to pinpoint exactly what modifications are needed in order for new, higher yielding varieties to be created.

However this public perception of GM technology is undeserved, harmful, and is blinding us to what is in fact a very safe and useful technology.

In a simple case, if an enzyme’s presence means that less oil is produced, one can simply mutate the gene that codes for this enzyme, thus causing a non-functional enzyme to be present in the plant, and resulting in higher oil yield.

It is in fields of research like these that GM technology really starts to show its true potential.

Far from merely changing the colour of fruit and veg, GM technology provides answers to problems that will have to be faced over the coming decades, often in cases where there simply is no alternative method.

If GM is to be allowed to succeed, it must be viewed in a much better light by the wider world, and for this to be the case the public must be provided with a good GM icon; an example which sums up all that is good about this incredible technology, rather than a gimmick with no purpose or potential.

Illustration: Patrick Brennan

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