Sept. 23, 2022 -- No matter how you slice it, a genetically engineered purple tomato just got one step closer to showing up in U.S. grocery stores.
The U.K. company developing the new purple fruit has passed a first test with U.S. regulators, demonstrating that genetic changes to the tomatoes do not expose the plants to a greater risk for pest damage.
The purple tomatoes are the first to pass the new SECURE law in the United States. The SECURE Act became law in phases between May 2020 and October 2021. The new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rules 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 tomatoes with purple skin only, the tomatoes are purple inside and out. Genes taken from the purple snapdragon plant provide the color and boost levels of anthocyanins. Norfolk Plant Sciences says the tomatoes contain 10 times more of this antioxidant than ordinary tomatoes, and therefore provide additional health benefits.
Also known as “super tomatoes,” the purple tomatoes can now be imported, cross state lines, and be “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 agrobacterium, to deliver the genetic changes to the Micro Tom tomato variety. Next, the company introduced the same changes into other tomato varieties through cross breeding.
Some genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on grocery shelves can be hard to identify. Many are genetically changed to make them easier to ship or to last longer on shelves, but these properties do not change how they look. However, the deep 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 pleased that the USDA reviewed our bioengineered purple tomato and reached the decision that ‘from a plant pest risk perspective, this plant may be safely grown and used in breeding in the United States,’” says Nathan Pumplin, PhD, CEO of Norfolk Plant Science’s U.S.-based commercial arm.
“This decision represents an important step to enable innovative scientists and small companies to develop and test new, safe products with consumers and farmers,” Pumplin says.
The new federal law was designed to encourage innovation while reducing pest risks, says Andrew Walmsley, senior director for government affairs at the American Farm Bureau Federation.
“We have been genetically modifying plants and animals since we ceased being mostly hunters and gatherers,” Walmsley says. “Improved genetics provide a multitude of societal benefits including, but not limited to, more nutritious food.”
Concerns From the Non-GMO Camp
Not everyone is enthusiastic about these new tomatoes.
When asked what consumers should consider, “We want them to be aware that if this is a genetically modified product,” says Hans Eisenbeis, director of mission and messaging at the non-GMO Project, a nonprofit organization in Bellingham, WA, that verifies consumer products that do not contain GMO ingredients.
“GMOs are pretty ubiquitous in our food system,” he says. “It's important that [consumers] know this particular tomato is genetically engineered in case they are choosing to avoid GMOs.”
There are other ways to get high levels of anthocyanins, he says, including from blueberries.
Eisenbeis considers the SECURE law changes a “deregulation” of GMOs in agriculture, weakening the ability of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to regulate these products.
One concern is that the same mechanism used to genetically modify this plant could be used for others and “open up the door potentially for genetic applications that are entirely unregulated,” Eisenbeis says.
Acknowledging there are skeptics of GMO products, Pumplin says, “Skepticism can be a good start to learning when it is followed by gathering solid information. We encourage people to learn about the science-based facts of GMOs and the ways that GMOs can benefit consumers and the climate.”
“In addition, there are many non-GMO and Organic Certified products available on the market, and consumers who choose to avoid GMOs have many good choices,” Pumplin adds. “New products improved with biotechnology will offer extra choices to some consumers who are interested in the benefits.”
How Will They Stack Up?
Passing the first regulatory hurdle from the SECURE rule does not mean the purple tomatoes can start rolling into stores just yet. Regulation from several federal agencies could still apply, including the FDA, the EPA, and other divisions of the USDA. The tomatoes may also need to meet label requirements from the Agriculture Marketing Service.
Norfolk Plant Sciences voluntarily submitted a food and feed safety and nutritional assessment report to the FDA.
Time will tell what further hurdles, if any, the purple tomato will need to overcome before it can form a purple pyramid in your local produce aisle.
“We want to bring our tomatoes to market with care and without rushing them,” Pumplin says.