Saturday, November 3, 2012

A Really Tasty Tomato?

It’s a rare occurrence when reading my daily copy of the Wall Street Journal that I find an article on gardening, but several weeks ago I was stunned to discover an entire 4-page section entitled “Innovations in Agriculture.” It contained eight articles, starting with one titled Vertical  Farming about growing crops in urban high-rises, and ending with one on robots harvesting fruits and vegetables.

I’d just consumed the last two delicious tomatoes from my garden and since I refuse to buy the tasteless offerings at the supermarket, I skipped straight to an article headed with an illustration of ripe red fruit, eager to read about producing a truly tasty tomato.

The first five paragraphs explained why store-bought toms are so bland and tasteless – farmers demanding plants with high yields, retailers wanting toms with good color and long-lasting shelf life, and of course the shippers need sturdy fruits that can withstand their  traumatic journeys crammed into crates.

All these excuses for ignoring taste are well known, but the last one was a surprise, the fact that back in 1940 a genetic mutation was developed that made tomatoes ripen uniformly, but was discovered only recently to seriously reduce their sugar content.

Fortunately this mutation is not incorporated in many of the seeds sold to home gardeners such as Big Boy and cherry tomatoes as well as the Heirloom varieties.  This is one  reason our home-grown tomatoes are tasty compared to store-bought offerings.  
Although scientists have been struggling to discover how to improve the tomato’s flavor, progress has been very slow because at least a dozen genes account for a truly mouth-watering tomato – its aroma, texture, sugars, acids. And field trials take years and often end in failure.

The article does end on a hopeful note.  This past May scientists decoded the tomato genome for the first time.  Plus something called “marker-assisted” breeding is now making the discovery process of genes much faster. In the meantime, growing a few tomato plants in your backyard each summer is definitely worth the effort.

I skimmed through the article on growing crops in urban high-rises. It may be of interest to city folk who have no access to local farm markets, and will be able to get produce close to home, but not to me.   The same can be said for the robots who harvest vegetables and fruit.

The other article that I found intriguing was one on the breeding efforts to improve our fruits and vegetables.  Monsanto has bred iceberg and romaine lettuce together to combine the sweet taste and crisp texture of iceberg and the higher levels of vitamin C and deeper green color of romaine.

Soon there will be seedless watermelons, broccoli with higher levels of antioxidant, its cancer-preventing properties.  Ah, a new variety of onion with less pungency, meaning no tears.  Grown for fall harvests, it will serve the winter market when the famous Vidalia onion is not available. 

Reading about all these agricultural pursuits in the WSJ was a real treat compared to plowing through all the stomach-grinding articles on politics.  I hope it inspires some of you to think seriously about having a vegetable garden next summer.  

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