You say genetically modified tomato - and I say no
`Touch my tomato and you touch my soul. An Englishman's home is his greenhouse'
Thursday 11 February 1999
I beg your pardon?
This genetic engineering. What's it all about, then?
Oh, you mean, this business of trying to isolate the gene for schizophrenia or homosexuality or baldness, or whatever you disapprove of, and trying to eliminate it?
My goodness! I didn't know tomatoes were ever homosexual or bald...
Ah, tomatoes! You're not talking about people. You're talking about genetic modification of vegetables and crops...
Yes. And it's always tomatoes, for some reason. Nobody ever seems to get into a pickle about apples or oranges, only tomatoes. Why is that?
Probably because more people in Britain try to grow their own tomatoes than any other vegetable, so they see it as a kind of private preserve. Touch my tomato and you touch my soul. An Englishman's home is his greenhouse. We see tomatoes as very British - even though they come from abroad.
From Italy, you mean?
No, no, no. They went to Italy. But they originally came from South America, from the Andes. Where potatoes also came from.
Good heavens. So, before 1492 European culture survived entirely without the help of spuds or tomatoes?
Not so extraordinary as the fact that in the years since 1492 the Italians have used the tomato to create a wonderful national cuisine, and the Americans have used it to create nothing but ketchup.
And it is these very same Americans who now want to alter the tomato?
I think so.
And why do they want to alter tomatoes genetically?
To make them last longer. To resist disease. To make them redder and shinier and bigger. All the things that supermarkets like. If they could genetically alter them to make them square and easier to pack, they would.
And tastier, too, and cheaper presumably?
No. Supermarkets aren't interested in making things tastier. Or even cheaper.
So how do supermarkets want to change things?
By making them more convenient. What appeals to a supermarket is a stack of tomatoes lying very near a stack of washing powders and not far from the crisps and biscuits.
Could a tomato be genetically engineered to be near washing powders and crisps?
Could a customer be genetically altered to prefer tomatoes in supermarkets?
No. He doesn't have to be. It is already done through cultural conditioning. A customer is gradually led to believe over the years that tomatoes in supermarkets are cheaper, better and tastier than what you get in the local shop.
And are they?
Of course not. They don't have to be. As long as the customer thinks they are, it doesn't matter whether they actually are or not.
So you're against genetic engineering?
Not necessarily. I'm just against supermarket philosophy. I agree with TV chef Anthony Worrall Thompson, who urged supermarkets to stop filling their shelves with new products that nobody wants, like disgusting lemon- flavoured creams in aerosols, and give more space to fresh food. I agree with him and I disagree with Moira Hilliam.
Who is Moira Hilliam?
She is a market intelligence manager for new food products who says, in to Tuesday's Evening Standard: "Mr Worrall Thompson is entitled to his opinion, but it is worth noting that a lot of products that started out as being weird and wonderful are now part of the mainstream. Yoghurt, Pot Noodles, soya sauce and even curry all started as new products once..."
Hold on, hold on! I'll give her Pot Noodles, and she's welcome, but is she saying that yoghurt and curry and soya sauce started life as a product? A spokesperson for supermarkets is unaware that all these things were in existence hundreds of years before supermarkets arrived? In the form of real food?
She isn't a spokesperson. She is a market intelligence officer.
Do you think a supermarket spokesperson can ever be genetically modified to acquire super-intelligence?
Not in our lifetime, I fear.
(IF YOU want to know more, send for our leaflet, "OK, I May Go and Spend a Fortune Once a Week at Sainsbury's Or Tesco, But That Doesn't Mean I Approve of What I'm Doing".)
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