India's new delicacy: a 45-day-old tomato

In a country where so many people go hungry, it is a dark irony that up to 30 per cent of the fruit and vegetables grown in India goes bad before reaching the market thanks to a combination of bad roads and a lack of refrigerated trucks.

But scientists in Delhi believe they have found a solution, or at least part of the solution. Modification of a tomato – but a modification that does not require the introduction of foreign genes – has extended the life of the fruit to up to 45 days. Indeed, the scientists at the National Institute of Plant Genome Research (NIPGR) believe they may have produced the world's longest lasting tomato.

"We're not adding new genes into tomatoes – the shelf life is increased by silencing two genes that make the fruits go soft," said the institute's senior scientist, Asis Datta. "Think about a normal tomato that can last a maximum of 15 days. This can last for 45 days without any problem. It is good news for the common people."

According to details published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Professor Datta and his colleagues identified two plant enzymes and their genes that drive fruit ripening. Then they used a process known as RNA-interference to "silence" the genes. As a result, the shelf-life of the tomatoes was extended threefold.

The researchers believe the process could be extended to other fruits such as mangoes, papayas and bananas which all suffer similar problems of getting to the customer in good condition.

The scientific breakthrough comes at a time of mounting controversy for genetically-modified food. The government is completing a series of public consultations on the introduction of a genetically-modified aubergine in the country, developed in part by Monsanto, the US-based bio-technology giant. It has been approved by a scientific panel but is being opposed by activists.

This weekend, the country's Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, was faced with more angry reaction from farmers and activists. At one point he was accused of being "an agent of Monsanto" and he swapped heated comments with his heckler, who was eventually removed by police.

The government is due to make a decision in days. "The decision will disappoint 50 per cent of India, and the rest will be happy," said Mr Ramesh. "But my decision will be based on balancing science and society. Public opinion is very important. We should always remember that [this] is the first genetically modified vegetable in the world."

While Professor Datta's tomato would have to receive similar approval before it could be introduced, he said he did not think it would create controversy. He said he believes the review process could be completed in as little as two years. He stressed: "There is no alien gene in these tomatoes."

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