By Roger Beachy, Director, National Institute of Food and Agriculture
Yesterday’s Science Tuesday post about growing tomatoes that last longer on the shelf in the store or on the kitchen counter has generated much really useful discussion about the role of science in growing our food supply. Science in the U.S. is a social enterprise, and the decisions about what technologies are appropriate and acceptable are societal, not purely scientific decisions, so this conversation is critically important to us all.
This particular research – though it was conducted using state-of-the-art genetic technologies – gives us a window into the genetic make-up of tomatoes that we can then use to breed tomatoes that are tasteful and nutritious, and are in every way like the home-grown tomatoes we grow and love in our own gardens but that don’t rot as quickly. The science is agnostic – you can breed these kinds of tomatoes the conventional way, or you can use genetic engineering to achieve the same ends. It will take longer using traditional plant breeding, but you’ll still get a flavorful, colorful tomato that just happens to last longer, the same way that generations of plant breeders and home gardeners have selected tomato varieties that are purple, or yellow, or weigh a pound apiece. Genetic engineering can speed up the process with the same outcomes.
I recognize the benefits of a local food supply – in fact, last week’s Science Tuesday post described a program in Sacramento that my agency, NIFA, funded to expand the local marketplace for immigrant strawberry farmers. However, I also realize that not everyone has access to fresh, local produce at prices they can afford. One of the many benefits of research like this is that it makes it feasible and economical to make fresh food more widely available to many more people.
One of my goals as director of NIFA is to invest in science that will help us boost U.S. agricultural production and improve our capacity to meet the growing food demand – here in the United States and around the world. Science, such as applied in this research on tomatoes, is the only way we can hope to solve the world’s current food needs, let alone the food challenges of the future: We don’t have the luxury of not using every tool in our toolkit with people’s lives and well being at stake.