The LA Times ran an interesting piece a couple of days ago about Why supermarket tomatoes tend to taste bland. It turns out, according to new scientific research, that the hybridization carried out by tomato breeders over the last several decades has inadvertently introduced a mutation that interferes with sugar production within tomatoes — and hence made standard grocery-store tomatoes less tasty.
It’s important to note that this was the result of good old-fashioned hybridization, the kind of cross-breeding of plants that humans have been doing for thousands of years, the kind that has given us pretty much all of the fruits and vegetables that our species has lived on for generations.
But the LA Times mentions that the technologies of laboratory genetic engineering could be used to reverse, in a precise way, this clumsy error. In fact, scientists have done so in the lab, but such reverse-engineered tomatoes are unlikely to make it to grocery store shelves.
But what if — however unlikely, given regulatory hurdles and problems of public acceptance — tomatoes genetically engineered in a way that reversed this error made it onto grocery store shelves? What if we could buy tomatoes genetically engineered to include a gene their tasty ancestors originally had? In a sense, the result would be, far from something “unnatural,” a more authentic tomato than the ones currently available.
The concept of authenticity is a vexed one. For some it has to do with “naturalness.” For some it has to do with pedigree, with where a thing came from. In his terrific 2010 book, The Authenticity Hoax, Andrew Potter suggests that in at least some instances, people regard authenticity as having something to do with being true to some vision of what a thing ought to be. From this point of view, genetically engineering the tomato to reactivate the GLK2 gene would result in a more authentic tomato, one truer to what tomatoes used to be, truer to the tomatoes your great-grandmother used to enjoy as a child.
(A while back I interviewed Andrew Potter, about his book, The Authenticity Hoax).