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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Warning: Agribusiness is in the lab again, molesting the “molecular machineries” of Mother Nature’s tomatoes.

Actually, it’s the already-machined, industrial tomato that lab techs are retinkering. It seems that big produce peddlers have discovered that their red, perfectly round, tomato-looking fruits are so flavorless as to constitute consumer fraud. Of course, tomato lovers have known this for years but industry didn’t care, for corporate producers had financial clout to force their products into the supermarket bins so the chain stores offered no choice to shoppers. Buy it and weep.

Indeed, the bland orb was specifically manufactured by land-grant university geneticists to satisfy industry, not consumers. Profiteering middlemen wanted to eliminate small producers and farm workers, grow the crop on huge corporate farms, mechanically harvest it, artificially ripen it, and ship it thousands of miles to markets without rotting. As author Susan DeMarco learned while researching Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times in 1972, taste was not even an afterthought. When she pointed out to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research director that the reconstructed fruit lacked flavor, he considered that irrelevant: “Your children will never know the difference,” he smirked.

But, of course, the children did — they’re the ones who’ve created today’s alternative system of sustainably grown, untampered, locally marketed tomatoes, which have been increasingly taking sales away from the industrial profiteers for the past 20 years. So, has the agribusiness-industrial complex finally learned that high-tech is not always better? Get real!

Actually, they’re getting more unreal, turning again to our tax-funded land-grant researchers to save them from the quality producers.

“I’m 98 percent confident we can make a tomato that tastes substantially better,” Professor Harry Klee exulted to The New York Times last month. He’s head of a team of tomato tinkerers at the University of Florida.

Hmmm. Excuse me, professor, but “substantially better” than what? One of Momma Nature’s own heirloom varieties, perhaps? No, no — Klee knows that high-tech tomato flavorologists like him can’t get near that quality. Rather, he’s merely out to endow the industrial, mass-produced fruits of agribusiness with enough tomato-ishy taste to pass as a minimally acceptable version of the real thing.

How? By using a gas chromatograph that serves as an artificial nose to sniff out “flavor volatiles” in real tomatoes. Then, he and his team of geneticists intend to extract a few of the genes that cause a plant to produce flavor and try to place then in industry’s manufactured creation.

  • sigrid28

    For eight splendid years, we owned and tended a one-acre orchard (which, in turn, tended and owned us) with over ten heirloom apple varieties (Thomas Jefferson’s favorite, Esopus Spitzenburg) as well as crab apples; three types of pear; six varieties of grape; elder berries, blue berries, goose berries, black berries, and both red and black raspberries; hops and rose hips; a French kitchen garden with herbs; and a patch of tomatoes companion-planted with basil–alongside a deep ravine with a one-acre black walnut grove and a rare stand of butternuts (the tree). We were, in Institute for Plant Innovation lingo, “producers of the natural product.”

    As even deck gardeners know, growing tomatoes by the five-gallon container, on the vine and off the vine, real tomatoes have a very distinctive, even a little bit stinky, smell. If you recognize it, you cannot go wrong in the grocery store. You can, however, spend a pretty penny for the real thing, something I discovered once our property had been foreclosed upon and bought up cheap by the neighbors, worshippers of all things powered by gas and the pavement they go upon. Our little vineyard-apple orchard went the way of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”:

    Don’t it always seem to go,
    you don’t know what you got,
    til it’s gone.
    They paved Paradise,
    put up a parking lot.

    Sad as this makes me, I’m heartened by farmers’ markets and food co-ops, even the huge produce department of the employee-owned supermarket here in town, taking up the gauntlet of cultivating devotees of “the natural product.” Maybe as fossil fuels become more scarce, quality produce will become more plentiful. An odd harbinger of this phenomenon is an explosion of gardening on empty city lots among abandoned buildings in Detroit.

    Just so you don’t think I’m a goody-two-shoes, I hope the skyrocketing cost of fossil fuel transport will eliminate corporate farms and the agribusiness-industrial complex–AND our clannish neighbors with their rifles, pit bulls, and pick-up trucks, who paved over an heirloom apple orchard (that took thirty years to develop) before the ink on their deed was dry. In the fuel-challenged future, the fast food industrial complex will have a more difficult time, too. Until then, we can do our part to bring back “the natural product” as fast as possible: plant a fruit tree or water a patio garden outside your backdoor, or put a potted herb on the window sill and watch it grow, next to hand-picked tomatoes ripening in a bowl.

  • tax payer

    Sprinkle some salt and it will taste much better.