TOMATO - GLOBAL FAME AND CORPORATE DESIRE
The familiar characteristics of a tomato such as size, flavour and colour are expressed by just 5% of the fruit - the rest being water. Despite its broad appeal today, up until last century it was widely feared as poisonous, just as its relatives belladonna and mandragora indeed are.
In 1820 Robert Gibbon Johnson entered history for daring to eat a tomato in front of a New Jersey Courthouse. Just 157 years later, tomato has become the most consumed vegetable in the world.
The popularity of the tomato comes not only from its flavour and freshness, but also because they are easy to conserve through processing. You name it: ketchup, sun dried, tinned, powdered, pureed or juiced - tomato processing has come a long way since jars of home preserve. Such versatility coupled with a growing demand for the fresh fruits, has pushed the development of tomato as a one of the main crops of the century. Breeding which intensified in the US in the 1930's and Europe in the 1960's, has been based on hybridisation. Such specialised development has taken the crop away from the farmer and placed it in corporate hands.
Wild tomatoes are only found in the Andes, but no remains indicate that it was ever cultivated in the region. One of these species managed to reach Mexico where mesoamericans, who had already developed sophisticated agriculture, proceeded to domesticate the newcomer. "Tomatl" soon became familiar to their homes and markets. The wild tomato that once travelled North still explains its story to those able to see it as more than a weed of Southern Mexico.
Farmers turned tomato from cross-pollinating to self-pollinating. As a result, the single species that emigrated North has developed a much less diverse heritage than the wild relatives which stayed at home. Outside the centre of origin where the cultivars cross-pollinate with the wild relatives, all domesticated varieties are genetically quite homogeneous. Despite this, an impressive array of variability has developed and today Seed Savers networks maintain broad collections in their gardens. In the US, people like Craig La Houllier and Carolyn Male, keep 800 varieties in their collections. The United States department of Agriculture (USDA) Plant Introduction Service has a list of 10,000 old varieties. These had been developed all over the world, particularly in Europe, regardless of previous poison fears.
Sadly, much of the diversity in tomato is gone forever. A study by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) in 1982, found that 80% of commercial tomato varieties listed in 1903 by the USDA, were no longer found in US seed banks, suggesting they had become extinct.
Tomato hybrids, today used for intensive production, display a high degree of genetic uniformity. Both the practice of certified seed production and the sharing of germplasm resources among breeders have led to uniformity, convenient to the needs of both intensive industrial production and tomato processors.
California, which now produces around 90% of the processing tomato in the US, developed the first variety suitable for mechanical harvesting. VF145 was the predominant processing variety for over 10 years. Although it has been replaced by many new varieties, the genetic uniformity of the crop remains high, because the newer varieties continue to share a large proportion of their ancestry with VF145.
It is the centre of origin of the wild tomato where diversity both within and between the nine species of the genus is compelling. It includes for example, a salt-resistant species, which can grow just 5 metres from the sea. The contribution of such genetic diversity, to the industrial growing of tomato is invaluable. At least 20 characteristics for resistance from wild tomato plants have been introduced into horticultural tomatoes. In fact, it is this diversity in wild tomatoes that has literally made VF145, and industrial cultivation, possible.
Much of this has been due to the work of one of the undisputed pioneers of industrial tomato breeding, Dr. C.M. Rick, of the University of California, Davis. Since 1948, Rick has been one of the main collectors of wild tomato species in their centre of origin. His efforts have led to the creation of the C.M.Rick Tomato Genetic Resource Centre (TGRC). Today, the TGRC holds 1010 accessions of wild species including many recent acquisitions.
Table 1. The main Ex-situ tomato collections in the world are controlled by the North.
* Includes sub-samples of the TGRC collection.
Dr. Rick confirmed to GRAIN that the accessions in the TGRC are available to all breeders who ask for them. The TGRC distributes 3000 to 4000 accessions each year, "We distribute them to both the public and the private sector, in a proportion that is roughly fifty-fifty". Rick went on to raise the familiar ghost of genetic erosion, "we also serve petitions from the countries of origin of our accessions, because the original populations have become extinct". Tomato provides a prime case against the devastating pattern of genetic erosion, the reduction of the South's biodiversity and control of genetic resources by the North.
Although tomato production in the South is larger than in the North, tomato is clearly a commodity controlled by Northern countries. In 1995, the North accounted for 72% of the world's US$2.8 billion tomato exports market, and 94% of the imports. Not including the international trade on added-value products such as tomato paste. The US and EU are the main tomato markets. The high value of tomato on the international market has seen continuous growth of tomato production (a 12% increase between 1990 and 1995).
In most developing countries, tomato is a seasonal crop integrated into complex local farming systems. It is highly valued for the variety of ways it can be eaten, cooked, conserved, and selected for its suitability to end uses. Its varied micro-nutrient content also plays an important nutritional role.
However, when it comes to serving large distant markets, and processing and retail industries that ask for particular, uniform characteristics, other considerations come first. Virtually all formal breeding on tomato has focused on increased yield which has led to industrialisation of the crop. To those used to considering productivity in terms of commodity yields, the results must look impressive. In 1996, world leader in tomato intensification, the Netherlands, produced average yields of 466MT/Ha. Compared with a European average of 38MT/Ha, and in China 27 MT/Ha.
High yields have been achieved through large scale use of external inputs coupled with alteration of the growing environment, particularly through use of greenhouses and in some cases doing away with soil altogether. Such methods have inevitably stimulated the use of high yield hybrids, which have been introduced to more extensive systems of open field cultivation, such as those that utilise the Mediterranean climate.
Table 2. The top 10 tomato producing countries account for 65% of world production.
Source: GRAIN from AGROSTAT
Second on the breeders priority list is disease and insect resistance. The essential role of Southern genetic resources here, have not extended to including traits to decrease reliance on the use of chemicals. Instead R&D priorities have adjusted particular characteristics of the tomato making them bloom earlier and for longer or shorter periods, thus influencing growth patterns. Or eliminating undesirable traits such as removing the green collar around the insertion point that may turn yellow instead of red, much to the horror of wholesalers.
The global commodity market for tomato has lead to intensive R&D into delayed ripening. Harvesting, transport and storage all require a strong fruit that will last the distance. Due to the ageing process intrinsic to ripening, mature fruits are unsuitable, so a common technique is to harvest fruits when they are still green. Ripening is then provoked before sale using ethylene, a substance that plants normally produce to initiate the process. However, when this technique is used in tomatoes they end up flavourless and so less appealing to consumers. The challenge to produce a fruit that could develop flavour on the plant and still be strong enough to reach the end consumer resulted in the Daniela hybrid. Developed in 1990 by Israeli and US breeders it became the first "long shelf-life" tomato and takes twice the time to ripen. Since then, long shelf-life hybrids have been developed with more appeal to human senses.
Who harvests the benefits?
Tomato accounts for half of the world market for vegetable seeds, estimated at US$1.6 billion. According to the international association of seed producers FIS/ASSINSEL the tomato seed sector is currently dominated by six companies: Empresas La Moderna, Limagrain, Novartis Seeds, Nunhems Group, Sakata and Takii.
Many of the major breeders have profited handsomely from relationships with the public sector. For example, French company Vilmorin, today part of the Limagrain group, developed the first hybrid tomatoes in 1947. The Institut National de la Recherche Agricole (INRA) developed its first hybrids in 1962-63 and in 1989-1990, the INRA and the main French seed groups, Clause-Limagrain, received a public grant to develop a network of gene banks for the creation of tomato varieties.
Enter the gene splicers
Tomato both a multi-billion end product and the raw material for a multi-billion industry was, from the very beginning, an object of desire for the pioneer biotech companies and giant agrochemical corporations, ready to grasp the potential markets offered by the new technology and its associated property rights. So it is no surprise that the first genetically modified crop to reach the market was Calgene's transgenic Flavr Savr tomato. Nor that one of the first important patent litigation battles was fought over a tomato gene.
Biotechnology R&D on tomato has roughly the same objectives as conventional breeding _ resistance and quality. Needless to say, the means to reach these goals have dramatically changed. The main source of information on what is the trend in R&D may be found in the patents.
According to "Derwent Biotechnology Abstracts", up to June 1997 there were 153 patent or patent applications explicitly claiming property on transgenic tomato plants. Since some patents refer to more than one acquired trait (e.g. a transgenic tomato plant with longer shelf-life and solids content), the addition of the number of altered characteristics claimed is higher than the total number of patents. (See Table 3)
Close to half of the claims on traits are related to the agronomic characteristics of the crop, with viral resistance being the top priority. Here Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred are leading players. Most of the these patents involve the insertion of a viral gene. This is particularly worrying since new scientific evidence indicates that re-combination between different viruses within a plant genome is an indisputable fact. As for insect and nematode resistance, one quarter of the claims are related to the use of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) proteins. Pioneer Hi-Bred is the leader in research on insect resistance. Disease resistance contains both bacterium-resistant and general disease-resistant genetically-engineered plants. Unlike maize and soya, development of herbicide tolerance has not appeared as a priority for the industry, with only Monsanto and Du-Pont devoting special efforts to develop such technology in tomato.
"Quality" remains high on the agenda with two main objectives. Firstly to continue the quest for the long-shelf life tomato, and also to design tomatoes with a higher solid content.
Genetic engineering is focusing on two approaches to obtain the long-shelf life tomato, that is, a tomato that takes a long time to get softer and thus unattractive for consumers. The first approach is to delay the whole ripening process, by means of delaying the synthesis of the main hormone that unleashes the ripening process, ethylene. This approach has been undertaken mainly by ELM, Zeneca and Monsanto.
Another approach has been to delay one part of the process stimulated by the ethylene, specifically the degradation of the cell walls of the fruit, which results in its softening. With the ethylene production unaltered, the rest of the process inherent in ripening continues in principle, unaffected. So while the consumer may think that she/he is consuming a fresh tomato, in fact only the most visible of the processes involved in ripening _ softening has been delayed, the rest continue unchecked. Hence the nutritious contents of a seemingly fresh tomato have little to do with consumer expectations. Calgene's Flavr Savr, withdrawn from the market in 1996, is the most notable example of this approach. However giants such as Zeneca, Unilever and Monsanto continue to develop and market the controversial technology.
The solids content of tomatoes is of high importance for the processing industry as it has been estimated that an increase of the solids content of tomatoes from 5 to 6% would save the tomato industry about US$75 million in the US alone. Zeneca and Monsanto are again the leaders in this field. The industry has further staked an interest in using transgenic tomatoes to develop vaccines and human proteins.
A patent issued on a technology and its products does not automatically mean that the technology will be developed by the holder. Patents provide control on potential future development options. The reasoning for obtaining patents is that those owning a large number of them will be able to grasp the most benefits on future markets. So, who is positioning itself to control the tomato market? The top 6 patent applicants control 49% of the patents. Not surprisingly, the list includes the agrochemical giants that are in control of plant genetic engineering . The control of agronomic properties in tomato is divided between Pioneer and Monsanto. On product quality, Zeneca and Monsanto appear as the dominant actors, with the exception of niche areas, such as the alteration of protein content, or the use of tomato as a source of human proteins.
In their bid for patents corporate clients continue to strengthen ties with public research. The importance of public research centres in the area of tomato R&D and patents is particularly high. At least 32 of the 153 patents analysed (21%) have a public institution as one of the patent applicants. The University of California alone accounts for 10 patents, though is the sole patent applicant for 7 of them. The rational behind public centres applying for patents is to gain sources of financing which allow them to maintain their independent research. Independent to what point, if it is to serve a corporate clientele?
Transgenic tomatoes in the field
A look at what is being tested in the field highlights which of the research lines are considered to have economic potential. New Genetically Manipulated Organisms (GMOs) have to be tested in the field in order to discover whether the chosen characteristics are expressed in a way which is suitable for their developers. Most OECD countries now have regulations on the release of GMOs into the environment, and many keep track of field tests. The US keeps similar records in a database which is updated daily and accessible through the Internet. As the US is one of the largest markets for tomatoes, the field tests conducted there are highly representative of what the industry is up to.
Source: GRAIN, from Derwent Biotechnology Abstracts.
To date there have been 510 field tests involving transgenic tomato, accounting for 12% of all the field tests on transgenic organisms either allowed or notified. A look at what characteristics have been tested highlights that virus resistance has been the most widely tested agronomic characteristic. 57% of tests on viral-resistant tomatoes have been conducted by companies now owned by Monsanto. Both Upjohn and ELM (owner of: Seminis, DNAP, Asgrow Seeds and PetoSeed) follow in second place.
At least 23 of the 48 releases to test insect resistance involve the Bt protein. In the other 17 cases there is no information available of the origin of the gene, as it is considered "Commercial Business Information" (CBI). In both cases, Monsanto is by far the highest tester, which suggests that they may involve Bt. These research trends show that in spite of the wide spectrum of potential technologies it is in reality quite narrow.
Battle lines and back-room deals
The battle of corporate control on tomato is being fought between three giants, Monsanto, Empresas la Moderna (ELM) and Zeneca. Having specialised in the niche market of insect resistance, Pioneer appears content to be out of the running. Although the three have also developed transgenic tomato with new agronomic properties, it has been the possibility to alter the properties of the tomato that look likely to hold the key for future market control. Time will tell whether the weaker patent portfolio of ELM effects its bid for supremacy.
Table 4. Patent applications on transgenic tomato plants up to June 97: Top 6 patent holders account for 51% of the patents.
Source: GRAIN, from Derwent Biotechnology Abstracts
The showdown between the three may have seen some tough posturing, but back-room deals being struck show a surprising level of co-operation. In February 97, DNA Plant technologies (DNAP) announced a technology collaboration agreement between its owner ELM and Monsanto which permitted DNAP to use Monsanto's genetic engineering technology for fruit and vegetables. Zeneca on the other hand, has developed a tomato with ELM's PetoSeed.
While fierce market competition may be assigning territory, we are already seeing companies shaking hands over the fence in recognition of their areas of market dominance. The double dealing and back stabbing is bound to continue when it suits corporate strategy, but all recognise that alliances can sometimes be profitable.
Control of global desires
From its mountain top existence, the humble tomato has been catapulted to a position of global fame and desire. All icons have their managers and tomato is no exception - as the insatiable demand has grown so too have breeder's efforts to meet it and keep it moving. The global hype has inevitably led to an unsustainable situation with industrial intensification leading to alarming genetic uniformity among varieties.
With a global demand secured, the next step is to take control of the supply. Centralised production, large scale distribution and industrial processing are at the core of current research on tomato. Other qualities such as flavour and nutritional content take a back seat. As with other crops, industry giants have turned to gene technology with its patent protection, as the preferred method of control. With biotechnology, tomatoes are produced further away, in a rigid chain of production where a single company like Calgene, may control the entire process from plant to dish.
The bold claims of gene technologists ring hollow. As the latest expression of industrial agriculture, biotech merely extends and deepens the crisis of genetic erosion and local food security. Lofty claims of tomato improvements are in any case ultimately dependent not on isolating genes but on the wild tomato and varieties developed by farmers over centuries.
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* AGROSTAT, FAO.