GMO Tomatoes: Rise of the FrankenTomato

With all the uproar over genetically modified organisms, is there anything to worry about in TomatoLand? More specifically, is there any possibility that eating a slightly-too-perfect tomato means you’re actually eating worm or bacteria DNA?

In a word, no.

Technically speaking, all tomatoes are hybrids. Even the most cherished, oldest, and knobbiest heirloom tomato is a hybrid of the original South American fruit. Tomatoes are one of those plants that people love so much, we’ve been tinkering with its genetics basically since the plant was first cultivated in Peru and Central America before the fifteenth century. They’re kind of like the dog of the plant world.

Yet this doesn’t mean that modern hybrids are “genetically modified organisms,” or GMO tomatoes. In the strict sense of the word, a GMO crop is one whose genetic code has been enhanced with DNA from another organism or through gene transfer technology. A good example is the GMO corn that was created when scientists inserted genes from the Bacillus thuringiensis (BT) bacteria into the corn’s DNA, making it resistant to certain pests.

There was a GMO tomato introduced in 1994. It was the first commercially available GMO crop, and it made a huge media splash. If you were around at the time, you probably remember news stories about FrankenTomato and glow-in-the-dark spaghetti sauce. This particular tomato was called the FlavrSavr and was designed to have a long shelf-life. The problem was, the tomato itself kind of sucked, and it was eventually discontinued. As of 2012, there were no GMO tomatoes being grown commercially anywhere in North America or Europe, according to GMO Compass.

Instead, tomato breeding is done the good old fashioned way: by crossing and recrossing plants for desired traits, then stabilizing the genetics and producing seed.