If you’ve ever been to the supermarket and seen those perfect-looking Dutch hothouse tomatoes on the vine (see above), and bought them, thinking they would taste as good as they looked, that’s not a mistake you’ll make twice. They are horrible, horrible things. This is how science killed good tomatoes:
Plant geneticists say they have discovered an answer to a near-universal question: Why are tomatoes usually so tasteless?
Yes, they are often picked green and shipped long distances. Often they are refrigerated, which destroys their flavor and texture. But now researchers have discovered a genetic reason that diminishes a tomato’s flavor even if the fruit is picked ripe and coddled.
The unexpected culprit is a gene mutation that occurred by chance and that was discovered by tomato breeders. It was deliberately bred into almost all tomatoes because it conferred an advantage: It made them a uniform luscious scarlet when ripe.
Now, in a paper published in the journal Science, researchers report that the very gene that was inactivated by that mutation plays an important role in producing the sugar and aromas that are the essence of a fragrant, flavorful tomato. And these findings provide a road map for plant breeders to make better-tasting, evenly red tomatoes.
The discovery “is one piece of the puzzle about why the modern tomato stinks,” said Harry Klee, a tomato researcher at the University of Florida in Gainesville who was not involved in the research. “That mutation has been introduced into almost all modern tomatoes. Now we can say that in trying to make the fruit prettier, they reduced some of the important compounds that are linked to flavor.”
The mutation’s effect was a real surprise, said James J. Giovannoni of the United States Department of Agriculture Research Service, an author of the paper. He called the wide adoption of tomatoes that ripen uniformly “a story of unintended consequences.”
Edmund Burke tried to warn us in the Reflections:
No man should approach to look into its [the tomato’s] defects or corruptions but with due caution; that he should never dream of beginning its reformation by its subversion; that he should approach to the faults of the tomato as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude.
Actually he was talking about the State, but I think we all know what he really meant.