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GM tomatoes are coming back, but this time they’re purple

GMOs (genetically modified organisms) still have an image problem when it comes to food. But attitudes are evolving, insists Norfolk Healthy Produce, a startup on a mission to change hearts and minds, one purple tomato at a time.

This is not the first rodeo for GM tomatoes, acknowledges Norfolk president and CEO Dr. Nathan Pumplin, who is gearing up to launch tomatoes genetically engineered to produce high levels of health-promoting anthocyanins in the US later this year.


First came the FLAVR SAVR tomato, which biotech company Calgene engineered for increased shelf-life and fungal resistance. FLAVR SAVR hit the US market in 1994 but disappeared in 1997 after Calgene was acquired by Monsanto.


While anti-GMO sentiment has been blamed for the FLAVR SAVR’s rapid demise, says Pumplin, supply chain challenges were largely at fault (notably, the tomatoes were too soft to be reliably machine-picked and transported if harvested ripe).


“Calgene tried to launch very quickly and build a supply chain from scratch within a year with varieties that weren’t optimal for the growing locations or product categories they were going into,” claims Pumplin.


In the UK, he notes, cans of GM tomato puree [produced under license by Zeneca with FLAVR SAVR tomatoes] performed well in leading supermarkets in the mid-1990s. However, the tide turned in 1998 when retailers soured on GMOs amid a media frenzy around “Frankenstein Foods” stoked in part by controversial comments about the health risks of GM potatoes from Rowett Institute scientist Dr. Arpad Pusztai. By 1999, the product had been ditched.


GM produce that delivers a clear consumer benefit


According to Pumplin, who is planning a limited-scale launch of purple tomatoes later this year, “I think more people are beginning to see the huge potential of genetic engineering to impact sustainability, the nutritional quality of our food, and food security.


“What Cathie [Professor Cathie Martin at the John Innes Centre in the UK, who developed the technology behind Norfolk’s purple tomatoes] recognized early on, was an opportunity to engage people with beautiful nutritious food that delivers a clear consumer benefit.


“There’s a huge demand for the attributes that these tomatoes bring, and we believe that we can get past this stigma around GMOs with great products and companies in this space that are successful. We want to be held up as a shining example of this and really open up the market for ourselves but also for others.”


‘Overwhelmingly positive’ media reaction


Meanwhile, “Gen Z and Millennials are much more positive than older generations about GMOs,” he claims. “Look at the success of the Impossible Burger [which features genetically engineered soy protein and a meaty-tasting heme protein made in fermentation tanks by genetically engineered yeast and features a bioengineered label].”


He adds: “When we got regulatory approval from the USDA last year, I was really surprised to see that the media attention was overwhelmingly positive.” Packers and shippers of produce are also excited about the potential wow factor of purple tomatoes, “as they’re all looking for the next big thing that will make a splash,” claims Pumplin. “Our product offers clear differentiation.”


“We also take a big lesson from Calgene; we will launch in focused metro areas, with shorter supply chains and with a product that we understand and can deliver. We have a huge advantage, being powered with extra nutrition, taste, and a remarkable, differentiated color, but we need to deliver a consistent, quality product to consumers to succeed.”



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