Some find ageless tomato in bad taste

Tomatoes on the vine.

TEXT OF STORY

Bill Radke: An Indian scientist has found a way to triple a lifespan -- the lifespan of a tomato, that is. But the so-called stay-fresh tomato does have its enemies, as reporter Raymond Thibodeaux tells us from New Delhi.


Raymond Thibodeaux: Tomatoes have a tiny farm-to-market window of up to two weeks. But researchers at the National Institute of Plant Genomes in Delhi can extend the shelf-life of a tomato to one and a half months.

Here's Dr. Asis Datta, the director of the institute:

Asis Datta (voice of interpreter): We characterize the two enzymes: Alpha Man and Beta Hex. We clone the genes and then design the construct to silence these two genes.

Simply put, Dr. Datta found two tiny switches in the tomato that cause it to age, and he basically turned them off. He says the same can be done for other fruit crops such as bananas and mangoes.

Many Indians are hailing the breakthrough as a boon not only for the country's farmers, but also India's children, nearly half of whom are malnourished. Some estimates show that as much as 40 percent of India's produce harvest is wasted because of a lack of adequate storage facilities and decent roads.

Datta (voice of interpreter): It's too expensive to transport from the villages to the cities. If I give a tomato a shelf life of 45 days, you can even use a cart to reach the market. Farmers will be rich, and the consumer will get the lower price.

Sounds like a win-win, but not everyone sees it that way.

Vandana Shiva is a physicist who heads Navdanya, an agency that supports organic farming in India. She says if Dr. Datta's motivation is to help India's farmers, creating a longer-lasting tomato isn't the answer.

Vandana Shiva: I have traveled through this country where farmers have plowed the tomato back into the field, because it's more costly to harvest than the price that they would ever get back. That's the real crisis farmers are facing -- it's a crisis of unfair trade, low prices for farmers, and it has to be solved in the marketplace. It can't be solved in the lab.

Still, some analysts say the stay-fresh tomato is likely to meet a fate similar to a genetically enhanced type of eggplant recently developed here. The eggplant had sailed through much of the approval process. Then suddenly, the process juddered to a halt, largely due to massive street protests by groups opposed to genetically modified food crops. Among those leading the protests: the farmers.

In New Delhi, I'm Raymond Thibodeaux for Marketplace.

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