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A mix-up over bioengineered tomato seeds sparked fears about spread of GMO crops

Sasa Woodruff

The Purple Galaxy Tomato splashed across the cover of this season's Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog: a closeup of a blackish-purple tomato speckled with tiny pink dots. Next to it, sits a sliced open fruit, revealing deep fuchsia seeds and flesh.

"This beauty is believed to be the first — and the purplest — non-GMO purple tomato in the universe!" read the catalog copy.

Only problem? The seeds actually may have been a GMO variety, the recently released Purple Tomato, created using genes from a snapdragon flower by Norfolk Healthy Produce.

The mix-up has caused consternation for the heirloom seed company that prides itself on offering rare and organic varieties and takes a firm stance against GMO crops. And it's triggered debate about biodiversity and what can happen with GMO seeds when they begin to spread.

When news of a non-GMO purple-fleshed tomato variety first startedcirculating on social media last fall, some scientists and tomato enthusiasts weren't so sure.

"I had discussions with colleagues about it, and all of us just looked at it and said, well, that's the GMO tomato," says David Francis, a professor of horticulture and crop science at the Ohio State University who specializes in tomato breeding and genetics.

Traditional plant breeders to date have not been able to create a purple-fleshed tomato with cross pollination. Purple skin, yes? Purple flesh, not so much.

But using recombinant DNA technology, scientists in the United Kingdom had developed a purple-fleshed tomato high in antioxidants. It was recently approved for saleand consumption in the United States.

After Nathan Pumplin, CEO of Norfolk Healthy Produce, saw Instagram videos of the heirloom seed company's Purple Galaxy tomato, he contacted Baker Creek. And here's where the story gets murky.

John Brazaitis, general manager of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds says their seeds were developed by a hobby breeder in France where growing GMOs is banned. Brazaitis says they tested for NPTII, a common marker for GMOs, but didn't specifically test for the snapdragon genes.

After some correspondence and disagreement about the testing, Baker Creek pulled the seeds from its collection and destroyed its stock.

The seed company refused to say whether or not the seeds were GMO and wrote in a statement: "After repeated testing, we are unable to conclusively establish that the Purple Galaxy does not contain any genes that have been genetically modified."

Pumplin wouldn't say definitively either, but their website says this: "We are told that laboratory testing determined that it is, in fact, bioengineered (GMO). This result supports the fact that the only reported way to produce a purple-fleshed tomato rich in anthocyanin antioxidants is with Norfolk's patented technology."

But the next mystery is one that's harder to answer: How could seeds get from a closed lab in the United Kingdom to a hobby gardener in France?

"I don't think it's a runaway train. You could easily argue that Baker Creek has it in their catalog because somebody misappropriated it and didn't do their due diligence," Ohio State's Francis says, "Whether that was just incompetence or a mistake, who knows?"

Francis says this isn't a case of the modified tomato genes escaping into the wild from a UK lab and traveling by wind across the English Channel to France because tomatoes don't spread like dandelions, purslane or ivy.

"For the same reason that regular tomatoes don't become weeds," he says, "They just don't have the characteristics that allow them to compete well in a crowded environment."

Francis says humans were most certainly involved. The GMO Purple Tomato was in development for 20 years, which means access to plant materials was long and sustained.

"Maybe it's a collaborator in France had some and their technician took it, and then their technician gave it to a friend who knows, right?" he says, "Somebody took it and said, hey, I'm going to play with this."

This isn't the first time a genetically engineered plant ended up with unwitting producers or consumers. In 1987, a German lab created an orange petunia by inserting a maize gene. It was never released to the public, but almost 30 years later, it was found in Finland, again almost certainly from someone illicitly breeding them. The culprit plants were all over Europe and the United States, not growing in the wild, but in gardens, parks and train stations.

Most of Europe has a GMO ban, so government agencies asked growers to destroy the orange varieties. When the USDA asked for a recall in 2017, there were nine varieties growers had to destroy with names like Trilogy Mango, Petunia Salmon Ray or Sweetunia Orange Flash. The USDA approved the orange petunia for sale in 2021.

Even if the GMO purple tomato seeds were not spreading in the wild, Baker Creek's Brazaitis is concerned that GM seeds could show up in surprising places and growers won't know if they have GM seeds or not.

"It's going to happen again and again as we see more GM crops come to market for consumers," says Brazaitis.

Baker Creek's Brazaitis says the whole experience of pulling the seed from their collection was very painful and worries about the long-term implications.

"We were absolutely over the moon about finding this really unique variety," Brazaitis says, "The comedown from that has been really hard. We never thought we'd be facing a GMO issue with tomatoes."

Pumplin says that USDA evaluated their tomato (as it does for all approved GM crops) to make sure it was unlikely to start spreading like a weed. "There is nothing in the purple tomato that would make it overtake other tomato populations," says Pumplin.

Tomatoes have about 35,000 genes and Pumplin points out the Purple Tomato has only two extra from a snapdragon. Tomatoes are self pollinating, which means pollination is contained within the flower and the risk of gene spread is very low.

Still, Brazaitis worries that GM varieties of plants could take over. "If we lose the biodiversity in our plant world, these varieties no longer exist and you're entirely dependent on things like GMOs to provide food," he says.

He says maintaining heirloom varieties is important because they're constantly adapting to new environments. USDA organic certified products don't allow GM varieties.

Francis argues that biodiversity is thriving in the tomato world.

"Some of the research that my group has done on tomatoes shows pretty conclusively that contemporary tomatoes, what we're using today, are more genetically diverse than the heirloom tomatoes of old," Francis says.

One of the main reasons is wild tomato genes have been pulled in and crossed for disease resistance and nutritional content is actually widening the gene pool of our food.

Copyright 2024 Boise State Public Radio News

Corrected: April 28, 2024 at 12:00 AM EDT
In an earlier version of this story the name of Norfolk Healthy Produce CEO Nathan Pumplin was misspelled as Pumpkin.
Sasa Woodruff

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