I grew up in Hollister, California, a community whose economic engine—then and now—was agriculture. Of all the crops that grew in the area, there was none more important to my family than tomatoes.
My dad owned and operated a small independent cannery in town, and tomatoes were the number one product. Believe it or not, the most valuable of all canned tomato products are whole, peeled tomatoes. Tomatoes that can’t be packed whole get sent to the dicer, the crusher, or—worse—the ketchup line.
When I was very young, the tomato canning season ran from July into October. In the 1960s and 1970s tomatoes were picked by hand, placed in what seemed like infinite wooden boxes, and trucked to the cannery for processing. A field of tomatoes could be picked four to five times because it didn’t all ripen at the same time.
Then, along came the scientists at the University of California at Davis. They invented the UC-82—also known as the “square tomato”—that was bred for canning. It had a rectangular shape and skin like leather. Scientists also figured out how to make the fruit ripen concurrently.
This meant tomatoes could be picked by machine—another UC Davis innovation—because the tough-skinned UC-82 could withstand the bumps and bruises of mechanized harvesting. It also meant they could be transported in one large tub rather than hundreds of small and increasingly expensive wooden boxes.
The tomato canning business was transformed almost overnight. Yields and production increased, waste and expenses decreased, and tomato canning season was shortened from four months to six weeks—which allowed canners like my father to package other products.
At the time, we didn’t call what scientists at UC Davis were doing “genetic engineering.” We called it plant breeding—which had been going on for generations—and we called them geniuses. That’s why this story in The New York Times Magazine struck me like…well, like a ripe tomato.
The public’s fears about genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—many of which are fueled by agenda-driven groups rather than sound scientific data—are beginning to be undermined by the benefits GMOs have on food supply and the potential for even greater nutritional benefits on the horizon, like Cathie Martin’s purple tomato described in the story.
There will always be a place, and a market, for non-GMO foods. But if we are going to affordably feed a hungry world, we need scientists to work hand in hand with farmers and food processors to develop healthy fruits, vegetables, and grains that can thrive in times of uncertain weather patterns.
For all of their positive attributes, I would not recommend slicing up UC-82s in your next tomato salad. They were not designed to be eaten fresh—they were bred to be canned. But they do make a heckuva marinara sauce. You can email me for my secret recipe.