The Van Trump Report

New Purple Tomato Will Test Consumer Appetites for GMOs Next Year

A new genetically modified purple tomato will be coloring farmers markets and grocery store produce aisles next year. About the size of a cherry, the team behind the completely purple fruit hopes to win over consumers not only with its unique color but also its potential health benefits and longer shelf life. The creators of the tomato are also aware that the tomato may have a big hurdle to clear when it comes to consumer attitudes toward genetically modified products.

The tomato, which has not been given a formal name yet, was created by Norfolk Plant Sciences and will be sold by a new spinoff called Norfolk Healthy Produce. The research was led by plant scientist Cathie Martin who began developing the tomato some 15 years ago. Martin’s aim was to make a tomato very high in purple pigments called anthocyanins, which are also found in blackberries, blueberries, cabbage.

Anthocyanins belong to a class of compounds called flavonoids that have antioxidant effects. This means that they fight unstable molecules, called free radicals, that damage cells and increase the risk of certain diseases. Some people contend that anthocyanins can also boost the immune system and help fight inflammation, heart disease, viral infections, and even cancer.  
Some tomatoes naturally produce the purple pigment but it is found in the skin only, meaning they don’t accumulate useful levels of the compound in the flesh. Norfolk’s tomato is purple all the way through. The team engineered the jewel tone by adding two genes from a purple snapdragon flower, which act like a switch to turn on the production of anthocyanins. As Norfolk CEO Nathan Pumplin explains, they didn’t add anything new to the plant, they just gave it a pathway to something that is already there.

Norfolk Plant Sciences, a company cofounded by Martin, plans to roll out the purple cherry tomato in a handful of test markets in 2023. The biotech firm is also working on purple tomato juice, sun-dried tomatoes, and beefsteak tomatoes, and plans to sell seeds for backyard gardeners. “We hope people will eventually grow their own,” says Martin.

Pumplin says he is aware of the potential pushback the new fruit might get from consumers that are leery of GMOs. That’s why the company plans to first introduce the tomato at farmers markets where he says growers get a chance to directly interact with consumers. And because its a GMO, it can only be grown in the US, so the company hopes to gain favor with the domestic, local production angle.  

Pumplin isn’t sure of the price yet, only saying it will initially command a premium price. But he also explains that as a cherry tomato, it fits in the fast-growing produce “snacker” category, which is already positioned as a premium product. (Sources: Wired, The Packer, New Atlas)

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