First genetically modified food crop becomes available to home gardeners in the US

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Norfolk Healthy Produce
Image: Norfolk Healthy Produce

Related tags gmo

Norfolk Healthy Produce has announced it has launched online seed sales of its first product: the Purple Tomato.

Norfolk Healthy Produce develops and markets innovative varieties of fruits and vegetables on behalf of the bioengineering group Norfolk Plant Sciences, where the Purple Tomato was created.  

According to the Davis, California-based company, the new tomato variety contains purple antioxidants called anthocyanins (the healthy nutrients in blueberries, blackberries and eggplants). Thanks to a bioengineering approach that combines tomatoes with two genes from an edible flower (snapdragon), Norfolk’s tomatoes are the only varieties that have purple antioxidants in the flesh and the skin, the company said.

Professor Cathie Martin, who developed the first and only purple-fleshed tomato, said she has ‘dreamed of this day’ since publishing her first peer-reviewed scientific report in 2008. “It has been my wish that gardeners could grow and enjoy purple tomatoes, and share in the health and beauty.” She said: “It is so exciting that gardeners in the USA can grow these in the 2024 season.”

Nathan Pumplin, CEO of Norfolk Healthy Produce, said: “We are thrilled to offer these first-of-a-kind seeds to home gardeners. Our tomato is just a tomato - you can grow it in your garden next to your Sun Golds and Purple Cherokees, and other favorite varieties. We share our gratitude to the thousands of fans, who have shared their interest and encouragement through our website. Please give a big thanks to the breeding and seed production team, as well as the regulatory team, whose care and diligence made this high-quality product possible.”

Packets of 10 seeds cost US$20, and are only available in the US, where the biotechnology regulatory process has been completed with USDA, FDA and EPA. The first variety is an indeterminate cherry tomato, and can be grown with the same gardening methods used for other indeterminate varieties.

Significant news for the GM crop debate?

The company pointed out that surveys with American consumers showed that 80% are interested to eat, purchase and grow the purple tomato, knowing that it is bioengineered (often referred to as a genetically modified organism, or GMO). Only 5% of consumers were not interested.

“We live at a time with many organic and non-GMO options in produce,” said Pumplin. “Consumers looking for something better and different, enabled with biotechnology, have very few options to choose from. Norfolk Healthy Produce is proud to offer an additional choice to interested consumers and suppliers.”

Norfolk Healthy Produce is also launching fresh tomatoes in grocery stores later this year.

Could climate change move the needle on GM technology?

Norfolk Plant Sciences was founded by Prof. Cathie Martin, a group leader at the John Innes Centre and Professor at the University of East Anglia (both in the UK) who developed the high anthocyanin purple tomato through her basic scientific research programme.

Prof. Martin then founded the spin-out of John Innes Centre and The Sainsbury Lab, together with her colleague Prof. Jonathan Jones, to enable commercial availability of their scientific discoveries.

Asked if the development will it shift any dials outside the US, Professor Jonathan Jones, group leader at The Sainsbury Lab in the UK, told AgTechNavigator that his general view is that most people are ‘unbothered’ about the use of the GM method. “It’s pretty far down the list of concerns that most people worry about,” he said. “But we are stuck with regulations put in place when people were worried about it.”

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