My favorite new crops are those genetically modified to include consumer-oriented benefits! Norfolk Plant Sciences’ purple tomatoes fit the bill. With a couple swaps of genetic material, these purple tomatoes turn a deep purple when ripe. Why? Because they’re loaded with good-for-you antioxidants and anthocyanins.
The Purple Good Stuff
Scientists created these purple tomatoes by inserting two genes from snapdragons into domesticated varieties of tomatoes. Tomatoes already have the biological capability to make antioxidants, though it’s usually limited to the plant’s stems. The snapdragon genes inserted by into the purple tomatoes activate the process of producing antioxidants for the fruit itself (sounds very similar to Artic Apples, which were engineered to turn off the browning mechanism). The tomato varieties chosen for modification include those with good production, yield, and flavor. The result is a tomato with dark-purple flesh and meat.
If you don’t know, antioxidants are substances that scientists believe protect our cells against free radicals, which may play a role in heart disease, cancer, and other diseases. Anthocyanins are water-soluble pigments associated with similar health benefits.
The Other Purple Tomatoes
Although this is the first GMO purple tomato, it isn’t the first purple tomato on the market. Other varieties were created through traditional breeding methods. But the end product doesn’t have nearly as many antioxidants and anthocyanins as Norfolk’s purple tomato.
While we’re on the subject of breeding tomatoes for special properties, it’s worth noting yellow tomatoes as well. Growers bred those tomatoes to have a lower acid content. As a result, they have golden yellow flesh and meat, as opposed to red. So breeding tomatoes for special characteristics isn’t uncommon at all!
The Regulatory Framework
These purple tomatoes recently received regulatory clearance from the USDA. Under the Plant Protection Act of 2000, the USDA has authority to oversee plant pests and prevent their spread to protect agriculture, the environment, and the economy. Companies can ask the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to analyze whether a new crop is subject to regulations under the Act. APHIS considers whether the altered crop poses an increased plant-pest risk compared to the plant-pest risk posed by a comparable crop. APHIS concluded that Norfolk’s modified tomato didn’t have any plausible pathway by which it would pose an increased plant-pest risk as compared to a non-GMO tomato.
I love that Norfolk Plant Sciences doesn’t shy away from the GMO label. The company is located in the UK, but even that doesn’t give them jitters about it. As it says on the company’s website, whether you eat them or not is your own choice. But Norfolk Plant Sciences is excited by the product and wants to share its health benefits with those interested.
Norfolk Healthy Produce, the U.S.-based subsidiary, plans on making the tomatoes commercially available by 2023. Nathan Pumplin, president of NHP, explained that the U.S.’s new regulation of bioengineered foods allows the company to bring them to market much more quickly and affordably. That means these purple tomatoes can provide Americans with health benefits sooner!
Personally, I can’t wait! Purple is my favorite color, and tomatoes my favorite vegetable. They’re so pretty and would look lovely on a fresh salad!