The first GM food to reach the market was the Flavr Savr tomato, the brain child of Calgene, a small company in Davis, California. The tomatoes had been genetically-modified for a longer shelf-life, and their launch was announced in 1994.
The gene for an enzyme that breaks down pectin was flipped in Flavr Savr. The enzyme causes the fruit to soften and rot, so the flipped gene meant Flavr Savr tomatoes lasted longer than their counterparts.
Calgene produced its first mature Flavr Savr tomatoes in the late 1980s, and tests showed these had the long shelf life the scientists had been striving for. There were then years of testing to gain regulatory approval in the US, and tomatoes hit the shelves of grocery stores accompanied by booklets explaining the genetic-modification process.
Sales were high over the coming months, with Flavr Savr tomatoes reaching over 1,700 stores and selling for up to twice as much as other tomatoes. Their popularity was fuelled partly by a blind taste test in which employees of high-end restaurants declared their surprise at the sweet and juicy tomatoes.
Good sales figures, however, were not enough, and Calgene faced losses of millions of dollars. Whilst the tomatoes had an improved shelf-life, they were easily damaged during transportation which added to costs.
Part of the appeal of the Flavr Savr was that the tomatoes were picked when ripe, whilst the rest of the tomato industry picked green tomatoes and used ethylene gas to induce ripening. Harvesting green tomatoes stops them getting damaged in transit, but artificial ripening can impair the flavour.
The hope had been that Flavr Savr tomatoes would be strong enough for transportation even when ripe, but this didn’t prove true and shipping proved difficult and expensive.
The cost of shipping was compounded by the challenges of harvesting ripe tomatoes: you can pick green tomatoes together, but ripe tomatoes are ready for harvest at different times. Once you took the extra costs into account, Flavr Savr was actually selling at a loss.
Flavr Savr’s story ended when Calgene was bought by Monsanto, and the GM industry moved in the direction of commodity crops designed to benefit consumers.
The inspiration for my book’s title (Is that Fish in your Tomato?) came from the images which sprang up alongside the Flavr Savr’s release. Contrary to the rumours, the tomato was neither cubic nor made with a fish gene, but if you search for images of Flavr Savr you will find some imaginative fish-tomato hybrids. My favourite is a stylish ‘tomato-soup fish’.