Out of America: At last: a ripe, genetically engineered tomato?

WASHINGTON - American science can perform amazing feats. It can send men to the moon. It can direct unpiloted missiles down a predetermined airvent from 500 miles away. It can fit you out with a new heart and liver simultaneously. Soon it will enable you to do your shopping without stirring from the couch in front of your television set.

But there is one glaring omission. Search as you may the length and breadth of this country you will not find a decent, mass-production tomato. But the scientists, are, finally, about to solve that one. This autumn the first genetically engineered, tasty- as-Mom's-backyard tomato will make its debut on the supermarket shelf.

Now tomato technology, you might imagine, is not a matter of overriding national concern. But you would be wrong. For months the saga has been on and off newspaper front-pages; even the lofty New Yorker devoted 11 pages to the topic. And rightly so.

Americans are disgusted with their tomatoes, as shown by a recent survey showing that of 31 common fruits and vegetables found in the average store, the tomato ranked dead-last in consumer satisfaction.

Yes, they look wonderful, the size of cricket balls, round and red, the colour imparted by spraying with ethylene gas, a standard ripening agent. In truth, though, they have been picked far too early to prevent them spoiling during transcontinental journeys to market. At heart they are green. Cut one open and the US tomato has little texture and no taste. The flesh is usually an insipid pink. Bite into it and you could be eating cotton wool. If you insist on a proper tomato and don't grow them yourself, your only hope is a local farmer's market.

Tomatoes are not the only culprits. Where fruit and vegetables are concerned, the American is victim of his own exigencies. 'Take the waiting out of wanting', was the advertising line of one of the early British credit cards. Thus it is with US farm produce. In the supermarket the seasons have no meaning; everything must be available all year round. Be they from California or Florida, Guatemala or Chile, the most exotic summer berries or the first asparagus of spring are on the shelves in the depths of a Minnesota winter. But at a price. Peaches are another special disappointment. On the racks they look gorgeous, but you need a pickaxe to get into them.

Fresh tomatoes, however, offer the real challenge. Maybe, like baseball, they summon myths of a vanished childhood; maybe it's the more prosaic matter of dollars and cents. Every year Americans spend dollars 4bn ( pounds 2.67bn) on them. How much more if the tomato could be improved by gene technology?

In any case the race is on. Several manufacturers claim to have the edge, and arcane patent battles are winding their way through the courts. But in terms of publicity at least, the front- runner is a small Californian company called Calgene. Its trump tomato is a variety named the Flavr Savr - which later this year, if all goes well, will become the first food devised by the use of recombinant DNA.

The breakthough appears to be sensational. I do not pretend to understand the finer points. But thus did Stephen Benoit, Calgene's vice-president, explain to the New Yorker the secret that will allow Flavr Savr to stay firm seven days longer than the normal tomato: 'We've isolated the gene that tells the tomato to go soft, made a copy of it and inserted it backwards, using our proprietary Antisense technology. So, instead of telling the tomato to get soft when it's ripe, the Antisense gene tells it not to get soft.'

Thus tinkered with, the tomato can theoretically be kept on the vine another week to allow that long-lost 'back-garden' flavour to develop without risk of spoiling. Cynics, however, suggest the extra life will be on the supermarket shelf, to the benefit of the seller rather than the consumer.

Other pitfalls loom. For environmentalists the doctored tomato is the thin end of the wedge; what further distortions are to be pressed upon Mother Nature in the name of the US consumer? The launch moment could hardly be less propitious. Lurking in the popular subconscious are those dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. Now 'Frankenfoods'. What gastronomic monsters are to be released from the biotech bottle?

Nor are America's foodies over- euthusiastic. The San Francisco restaurant Chez Panisse, self-appointed keeper of the Ark of the Covenant of culinary rectitude, has said it will not touch Flavr Savrs with a bargepole. Those who have sampled them tend to agree. But Calgene points out these are less tasty, hothouse specimens. The world awaits the first field-grown Flavr Savr.

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