September 23, 2022 — No matter how you cut it, a genetically modified purple tomato has just taken a step closer to appearing in American grocery stores.
The UK company developing the new purple fruit has passed an initial test with US regulators, demonstrating that genetic modifications made to tomatoes do not put plants at greater risk of pest damage.
Purple tomatoes are the first to pass the new SECURE law in the United States. The SECURE Act became law in stages between May 2020 and October 2021. New rules from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) update how the agency reviews genetically modified foods, focusing more on the food itself than the process used to create it.
More than skin deep
Not to be confused with purple-skinned tomatoes only, tomatoes are purple inside and out. Genes extracted from the purple snapdragon plant provide color and increase anthocyanin levels. Norfolk Plant Sciences claims tomatoes have 10 times more antioxidant than regular tomatoes, and therefore provide additional health benefits.
Also known as “super tomatoes,” purple tomatoes can now be imported, crossed state lines, and “released” into the environment. The company plans to provide seed packets to home gardeners once they receive final regulatory approval.
Norfolk used a common agricultural bacterium, aptly named agrobacteria, make genetic changes to Variety of Micro Tom tomato. Then the company introduced the same changes in other tomato varieties through crossbreeding.
Some genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on grocery store shelves can be difficult to identify. Many are genetically modified to make them easier to ship or to last longer on the shelves, but these properties don’t change their appearance. However, dark purple tomatoes from Norfolk Plant Sciences will likely stand out in the produce aisle.
Move over, eggplant. You’re not the only purple fruit in town. (And yes, both are fruits.)
A boost to food innovation?
“We are delighted that the USDA has reviewed our bioengineered purple tomato and has made the decision that ‘from a pest risk perspective, this plant is safe to grow and use in breeding in the United States. United,” says Nathan Pumplin, PhD, CEO of Norfolk Plant Science’s U.S.-based business arm.
“This decision represents an important step in enabling innovative scientists and small businesses to develop and test safe new products with consumers and farmers,” Pumplin said.
The new federal law was designed to encourage innovation while reducing pest risk, says Andrew Walmsley, senior director of government affairs at the American Farm Bureau Federation.
“We’ve been genetically modifying plants and animals ever since we stopped being primarily hunters and gatherers,” Walmsley says. “Improved genetics provide a host of societal benefits, including but not limited to more nutritious foods.”
Concerns of the non-GMO camp
Not everyone is excited about these new tomatoes.
When asked what consumers should consider, “We want them to know that if it’s a genetically modified product,” says Hans Eisenbeis, mission and messaging director of the non- GMO Project, a Bellingham, WA nonprofit organization that verifies consumer products that do not contain genetically modified ingredients.
“GMO are pretty ubiquitous in our food system,” he says. “It is important that [consumers] know that this particular tomato is genetically modified in case they choose to avoid GMOs.
There are other ways to get high levels of anthocyanins, he says, including from blueberries.
Eisenbeis sees the SECURE Act as altering a “deregulation” of GMOs in agriculture, weakening the ability of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to regulate these products.
One of the concerns is that the same mechanism used to genetically modify this plant could be used for others and “potentially open the door to totally unregulated genetic applications,” says Eisenbeis.
Acknowledging that there are skeptics of GMO products, Pumplin says, “Skepticism can be a great learning start when followed by solid information gathering. We encourage people to educate themselves on the scientific facts of GMOs and how GMOs can benefit consumers and the climate.
“Additionally, there are many non-GMO and certified organic products available on the market, and consumers who choose to avoid GMOs have many good choices,” adds Pumplin. “New products enhanced through biotechnology will provide additional choices for some consumers interested in the benefits.”
How will they stack up?
Passing the first regulatory hurdle of the SECURE rule doesn’t mean purple tomatoes can start hitting stores just yet. Regulations from several federal agencies may still apply, including the FDA, EPA, and other USDA divisions. Tomatoes may also need to meet Agriculture Marketing Service labeling requirements.
Norfolk Plant Sciences has voluntarily submitted a Food and Feed Safety and Nutrition Assessment Report to the FDA.
Time will tell what other obstacles, if any, the purple tomato will need to overcome before it can form a purple pyramid in your local produce aisle.
“We want to get our tomatoes to market carefully and without rushing them,” says Pumplin.