If you regularly include tomatoes on your grocery shoppin list, take warning now: Selecting tomatoes is about to become a more difficult matter.
But in coming months -- late summer or early fall, depending on the harvest -- when Calgene Fresh of Evanston, Ill., introduces its new MacGREGOR-brand tomatoes, shoppers across the country are going to have to make some decisions.
How volatile that process is going to be was foreshadowed in a presentation Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Institute of Wine and Food, in Washington.
The San Francisco-based group, founded to promote interest in and knowledge of food and wine, spent most of its four-day "Conference on Gastronomy" on topics relating to food as culture, in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution's Columbus commemoration exhibit "Seeds of Change." They also ate foods prepared by California and Washington-area chefs, sampled wine, and rubbed elbows with such luminaries as AIWF founder JuliaChild, anthropologist Lionel Tiger, plus winemakers, restaurateurs, cookbook authors and food journalists from across the country.
Sunday's final session brought together scientists, chefs, academics, government and consumer advocacy representatives and journalists for "The Great Biotech Debate." At issue: Whether scientists should apply the tools of biotechnology to altering the food supply.
The MacGREGOR tomato will be the first genetically modified product of its kind to hit grocery shelves, and it has become a lightning rod for concerned parties on both sides of the debate. The tomatoes are grown from a new variety of seed, called FLAVR SAVR. Unlike all previous new varieties, this one is not the product of traditional cross-breeding techniques. Instead, it is the product of genetic engineering.
Steve Benoit, vice president of marketing at Calgene Fresh, said that in the past, commercial tomato growers have had to worry about three major factors: yield, uniformity and durability. That's what it took to get tomatoes to market. Taste was hardly considered. With the FLAVR SAVR, Mr. Benoit said, "We're able to leave the fruit on the vine three to five times longer. That's when the acids and sugars that create flavor are developed."
In creating the tomato, genetic engineers extracted a gene -- a piece of the blueprint that determines hereditary characteristics in all living organisms -- from an ordinary tomato, reversed it, and reinserted it into the genetic message string that determines the nature of the plant. The gene controls an enzyme called polygalacturonase (polly-galac-TUR-oh-nase) that causes the tomato fruit to soften. In the wild, tomatoes must soften and decay in order to release their seeds -- and start the growing process over.
But in the tomato trade, this message to soften comes far too early. Tomatoes left on the vine until they are ripe enough to eat would quickly move into the rotting stage. And since "fresh" tomatoes may be two or three weeks in transit between grower and grocery produce counter, they are picked when still hard and green, with the expectation that when they get to consumers, they will have begun to ripen. In practice, tomatoes treated in this fashion do not fare well, and come to consumers pink and mushy.
But, in the FLAVR SAVR tomato, 99 percent of the "soften" message is blocked. That prolongs the softening process for about a week. So FLAVR SAVR tomatoes can be left on the vine a few days longer, until they are a few days riper, and, it is hoped, will arrive at the grocery with more "vine-ripe" flavor and texture.
Dr. Roger Beachy, a plant biologist with the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., noted that certain genetic engineering techniques, such as cell fusion and embryo rescue, have long played an important role in the development of new varieties of plants. New varieties are needed, he said, because "agriculture has become completely chemically dependant" -- that is, today's commercial varieties require chemical fertilizers for growth and pesticides to protect them from pests and disease. His goal, Dr. Beachy said, is the development of plants that need "less chemical intervention to prosper."
But Rebecca Goldberg, a biologist with the watchdog Environmental Defense Fund, said, "Genetic engineering allows producers to do anything to a plant. It's blurring the distinction between processed and unprocessed foods." All genes carry codes for proteins, she said, and all known true allergenic substances are proteins. (Food allergies are a reaction of the body's immune system to a substance in food; some people suffer from food intolerances, such as lactose intolerance, that don't involve the immune system and are not allergies.) She suggested more work needs to be done on issues of protein safety, allergenicity, and potential unintended side effects before any genetically engineered products enter the market.
She also voiced concern that current Food and Drug Administration policy -- announced during the Bush administration -- "gives industry tremendous new discretion; it does more to protect the industry than to protect the public."
And Rick Moonen, executive chef of the Water Club in New York, who, like many chefs, believes all foods should be served when )) they're seasonal and fresh, said, "I don't see the need to improve on what Mother Nature has been doing for thousands of years. . . . There are some terrible tomatoes out there. Everything has a season. In my profession, that's what makes it exciting."
Judging from the somewhat fuzzy questions from the audience, neither side has gotten its arguments out to the public. "This is not a cozy, easy topic," noted panel moderator R. W. Apple, New York Times Washington bureau chief.
"Human beings are well aware of the fragility of their control over the universe," Mr. Tiger said at the session. This fear of genetic mutations, or monsters, he said, "is the source of all monster movies." So it's not surprising that "with this issue, there is a profound element of human fear."
Another fear factor might be the element of the unknown. Dr. Thomas Hoban, of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, who advises industry and government agencies on new technology introduction, said a recent survey showed that more than half the people questioned had no idea what the new technology is. But, he said, "consumers really want to know what is here, and they want to evaluate every product on its own merits."
Calgene Fresh plans to market the MacGREGOR FLAVR SAVR, which took 10 years and $20 million to develop, with a stick-on label and plenty of in-store information about its special properties. The tomatoes will cost more than other varieties, Mr. Benoit said, so if it's not a better-tasting tomato, "people won't buy it."
"We think it's about two types of choices," Mr. Benoit said. "One choice is taste. And one choice is whether a genetically altered tomato is acceptable to consumers."
Tomato buyers are going to have to decide, first, whether they care about the issue of biotechnology and the food supply and, if the answer is yes, how they feel about genetic engineering in plants. Does it seem monstrous or dangerous to tamper with genetic codes? Or is it a vision of a more perfectable future?
"In terms of feeding the world," Mr. Benoit said, "we're only
talking about a tomato here. But in the long term, if we don't use this technology, we've wasted a powerful tool."
But getting the public to accept the technology may be an uphill battle. Last fall, Washington-based activist Jeremy Rifkin announced the formation of the Pure Food Campaign, aimed at stopping bio-engineered products. FLAVR SAVR is the first target of the group.
Mr. Rifkin, who previously declared war on the beef cattle industry as environmentally unsound, has signed up more than 1,500 chefs from across the country who've vowed never to use genetically altered products in their restaurants.
At a news conference in San Francisco in September, Mr. Rifkin said, "We're going to make this the most infamous tomato of all time."