Saturday, July 4, 2009
Why supermarket tomatoes have no taste
The reasons can be summed up in two words: Industrial Agriculture.
Prior to the 1940s, when the U.S. was still a predominantly rural country, most people only ate food they and their neighbors could grow and store. If it didn't grow in your town or couldn't be kept canned, salted, dried or in a cool cellar, you rarely ate it. My great aunt once described how she and her siblings would often receive oranges as Christmas presents.
As the decades rolled by, Americans flooded into cities looking for opportunities, and flooded out into the suburbs with their new-found wealth. Much like today's organic and foodie enthusiasts, contemporary Americans were excited by the possibility of having a greater diversity of food for a greater proportion of the year. Truck farms sprang up in regions that benefited from mild climates and proximity to major urban centers. Huge quantities of fresh produce were produced in areas such as southern New Jersey (hence "The Garden State" and "Jersey tomatoes"), and shipped to nearby cities such as New York.
This huge demand for new and better varieties supported professional plant breeders who worked to increase the yields and stress tolerance of their favorite crops. Economies of scale rewarded growers who set up massive farms in warm climates with long growing seasons and shipped their product across the country as opposed to working locally with whatever resources were available. Plant breeders helped get more food to the people at an affordable price by focusing on producing varieties that could be harvested by machines and sit for long periods of time on trucks and grocery shelves before going bad. These new varieties were often less tasty than their ancestors, but they were available, inexpensive and an important source of healthy, diverse food for new urbanites.
Tomato is a particularly informative example. In the 1940s, a Cornell agricultural scientist discovered a natural mutation in his field tomatoes. One plant produced green fruit that refused to ripen. Over time it was discovered that this plant has a broken version of a gene that is a master regulator of ripening. A normal tomato plant has two good versions of this gene while a plant with two broken versions is ripening-inhibited (rin). A plant that has one good copy and one broken copy ripens very slowly and never quite becomes as flavorful as a normal tomato - but it can be shipped long distances and stored for long periods of time without rotting into ketchup. These hybrids represent a very large proportion of supermarket tomatoes.
Now that consumers are demanding higher quality in addition to availability, plant breeders and agronomists are working hard to create new varieties and growing practices that supply people with the best tasting and most nutritious foods they can at a reasonable price.