Once upon a time tomatoes tasted of summer: succulent and rich, sweet and acidic.
Those days are long gone.
Most tomatoes now taste either watery and bland, or like nothing at all.
Of course, I’m referring to your general run-o’-the mill grocery store tomatoes—in the summer months one can grow heirloom or hybrid tomatoes or buy locally grown varieties at the local farmer’s market. But these are still rare luxuries for most Americans, who remain familiar only with the insipid commercial tomato.
The problem, ironically, is that we love tomatoes too much.
The modern tomato
Tomatoes are the second most popular produce item in the U.S. We produced almost 13 million tons of tomatoes in 2010. The practicalities of producing and providing—year-round—this prodigious quantity of uniformly red, shiny, and blemish-free tomatoes has resulted in tomatoes bred for high yields, disease tolerance, ability to withstand mechanical picking, and long shelf life.
Most of Oregon’s “fresh” commercial tomatoes are grown in the infertile soils of Florida, doused in pesticides and herbicides and chemical fertilizers, picked green by 21st century slaves, gassed with ethylene so as to turn orange, packaged, and trucked over 3,000 miles.
Little wonder that they lack flavor.
But it’s more than that—commercial growers have no incentive to care about flavor, they’re paid by the pound. Even if they did, they’d be hampered by the fact that, until recently, the complex and variable chemical molecules that determine a tomato’s flavor were little understood.
But wait! There’s hope! A new scientific study!
Scientists, geneticists, and food chemists have spent the last decade attempting to decipher the genetic and molecular underpinnings of tomato taste.
A recent study entitled “The Chemical Interactions Underlying Tomato Flavor Preferences” has made significant leaps in this regard.
For the study, scientists selected 152 heirloom tomato varieties, from which they determined 278 different chemical profiles. Taste-testers’ specific responses about sweetness, sourness, acidity, intensity, etc. were matched against these different chemical profiles. After statistical analysis, study authors determined that “flavor intensity traces to 12 different compounds and sweetness to another 12, including 8 that were also important for overall flavor.”
So there it is—out of thousands of chemical compounds, they isolated the 24 that make tomatoes so very tasty.
Now it’s just a matter of splicing those genes into commercial tomatoes and voila: problem of the tasteless tomato solved.
Or maybe not.
It’s hard to argue against making tomatoes palatable again. But genetically modifying a tomato to be “tasty” while keeping that tomato in the same obscene system that once rendered it decidedly un-tasty is the mindless technological “solution” that does nothing to affect the real problem.
Take as an example how Barry Estabrook, author of the troubling book Tomatoland, A Tale Of Tasteless Tomatoes, Toxic Chemicals And Slavery, described that his “mother, in the ’60s could buy a tomato in the supermarket that had 30 to 40 percent more vitamin C and way more niacin and calcium.” The genetic engineering solution to this factoid would be to say “Hey, let’s just splice in a bunch more Vitamin C and micronutrient delivering properties into the plant!” But the real solution would be to eat local tomatoes grown in rich, nutrient-laden soil, not tomatoes that were able to survive Florida’s barren sands only with the help of chemical fertilizers and horrifying amounts of chemical poisons.
Just so, the real solution to the tasteless tomato may be to eat a perishable summer fruit in the summer and not the winter. The real solution may be to question the commercial food system—a system in which a vice-president of Kraft Foods can say with a straight-face “We think customers understand that (our guacamole) isn’t made from avocado” (it was made from partially hydrogenated soybean and coconut oils, corn syrup, whey, food starch, and yellow and blue dyes.)
But to our credit, we do question the food system; some have been decrying the current state of the tomato for decades. Harry Klee, lead author of the new study, justified its worth by saying “Consumers care deeply about tomatoes. Their lack of flavor is a major focus of consumer dissatisfaction with modern agriculture.”
There are two ways of alleviating this dissatisfaction. The easier, unarguably cheaper, and shallower way is to focus your dissatisfaction on the individual tomato and thus be happy with the new genetically modified tasty tomato the system provides for you. The more difficult, deeper solution would be to focus your dissatisfaction onto modern agriculture itself; to hope for tomato plants or breeds that, as Carol Deppe—Corvallis resident, author, gardener, and renegade plant breeder—stated in her book Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, “are more agro-ecologically adapted, or that enhance the viability and independence of the farms in their regions instead of destroying them.”
(This article first appeared as :Tasteless Tomatoes” in the July 25, 2012 issue of The Corvallis Advocate)