A purple GMO tomato is hitting the grocery stores. Will the US bite?

In December 2004, Plant scientist Cathie Martin went into the greenhouse to check on her tomatoes. The tiny fruits, about the size of gummy candies, were still green. A variety widely used in research labs, these miniature tomatoes usually turn red as they ripen. But when Martin returned after Christmas, they started turning purple – just like she’d hoped.

Martin and her colleagues at the John Innes Center in the UK wanted to make a tomato rich in anthocyanins, an antioxidant-rich pigment found in blackberries and blueberries. The team engineered the gemstone tone by adding two genes from the snapdragon flower that act like a switch to turn on the production of anthocyanins. Over the years, Martin and her team have crossed their purple tomatoes with other varieties to make them bigger — and tastier — than the micro-variety they originally grew.

Now the United States Department of Agriculture has ruled that their purple tomato can be grown and grown in the United States. On Sept. 7, the agency issued a statement saying the tomato “is unlikely to pose an increased risk of crop pests compared to other cultivated tomatoes” and is not subject to regulation. (This is the main criterion the agency uses to determine whether plants produced using biotechnology should be regulated.) Norfolk Plant Sciences, a company Martin co-founded, plans to introduce a purple cherry tomato in a handful of test markets in 2023. The company also works on purple tomato juice, sun-dried tomatoes, and beefsteak tomatoes, and plans to sell seeds for backyard gardeners. “We hope that eventually people will grow their own,” says Martin.

Martin’s purple tomato isn’t the first genetically engineered fruit to be approved in the United States. It’s not even the first genetically engineered tomato – the name dates back to the Flavr Savr, which was introduced in 1994 as the first genetically engineered crop commercialized for human consumption. The Flavr Savr was developed to have a longer shelf life than conventionally grown tomatoes. However, due to the high production and distribution costs, it was withdrawn from the market only a few years later. The industry instead turned to more profitable GM crops like corn and soybean, designed with the grower or producer in mind: to resist pests, tolerate herbicides, or produce higher yields.

The purple tomato could mark a turning point for GM foods in the US: Its GM trait is designed to attract the shopper, not the farmer — especially one interested in potential health benefits. “This is a trait that’s primarily for the consumer,” says Bárbara Blanco-Ulate, a fruit biologist and professor at the University of California, Davis, who was not involved in the development of the purple tomato. “People want food that’s more nutritious and exciting.”

While purple-skinned tomatoes were developed through conventional breeding, they do not accumulate high levels of anthocyanins in the flesh. There is evidence from other researchers that these compounds may help prevent cancer, reduce inflammation, and protect against type 2 diabetes. And in a 2008 study, Martin and her team found that mice predisposed to developing cancer lived 30 percent longer on a diet supplemented with purple tomatoes than mice on a normal diet containing the was supplemented with normal red tomatoes. (Of course, animal studies don’t always translate to humans, and there are many lifestyle and genetic factors that can affect a person’s risk of cancer.)

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