Salt-Resistant GE Tomatoes Face Farmer rejection

New Salt-Resistant GE Tomatoes Face Farm
& Marketplace Rejection

August 7, 2001, Researcher creates salt-resistant tomato, but where will it

BYLINE: By PAUL ELIAS, Associated Press Biotechnology Writer


A California researcher has created a tomato that can grow and thrive with
salty water, a breakthrough he said could lead to the cultivation of
now-barren fields around the world.
University of California, Davis Professor Eduardo Blumwald's tomato plants
can grow using water containing 50 times more salt than normal. His findings
are published in this month's issue of the peer review journal Nature

The resulting tomato contains three times as much salt than a traditionally
grown tomato, but the salt can't be tasted, Blumwald said.
He believes his invention can be used by farmers toiling with bad soil and
on a variety of crops. Fields doused in large amounts of irrigated water
over long periods of time develop high levels of salinity, which stunts crop

Blumwald envisions tomatoes growing in the deserts of the Middle East and on
now-fallow lands in India. But for now, the scientist's tomatoes, with a
salt-fighting gene from a plant related to cabbage fused with a tomato
plant, is being rejected by many California farmers.
In the Central Valley town of Five Points, the heart of tomato-growing
country, growers are refusing to grow genetically modified crops for the
simple reason that they aren't selling in supermarkets. Until they do,
California's largest farmers won't touch Blumwald's tomatoes or any other
biotechnology-created crop.

"Biotech is taboo," said Tom Braner, business manager of Five Points-based
grower Tanimura & Antle, which grows 240,000 acres of tomatoes. "Everybody
wants organic. Nobody wants genetically modified food."
Blumwald's creation isn't playing well on small organic farms like the ones
found around Santa Cruz either.

"It's a Band-Aid," said Mark Lipson, co-owner of Molino Creek Farm, which
grows organic tomatoes on six acres. Lipson said the "real problem" is
over-irrigation of crop land by large corporations. Developing
salt-resistant tomatoes isn't going to improve the deteriorating conditions
of the world's farm lands, Lipson said.

Lipson and other organic farming proponents are also concerned that pollen
from biotech crops will contaminate their plants. They also fear
hard-to-kill super weeds will sprout from genetically modified pollen.
Other genetically modified food opponents, such as Peter Meechan, chief
executive of Newman's Own Organic food company, contend that not enough
research has been done to ensure the food is safe to eat.
"We need to see more testing," he said.

All of which frustrates Blumwald.

He complains that salinity levels continue to rise while traditional methods
of selective breeding of crops has resulted in little relief over the last
100 years. Furthermore, he argues that he's merely "crossbreeding" plants
like farmers have done for centuries.

"I'm not doing anything different than farmers did a thousand years ago," he
said. "Nothing bad is going to happen. This is a solution, not a problem."
Blumwald said he has developed hundreds of the salt-resistant plants, now
being kept in a University of Toronto greenhouse where Blumwald did most of
his research. He joined the Davis faculty last year where he hopes to grow
his plants in a salt-damaged field if he can secure funding.

In arid areas such as California's Central Valley, where most of the
country's tomatoes are grown, farmers use irrigation water - as opposed to
rainfall - to grow crops. As the water flows from its source in rivers and
streams, minerals are picked up and deposited in farmers' fields.
Eventually, fields using this water can become too salty and unfarmable. The
U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that crop production has fallen by
25 percent on irrigated land in the United States because of rising salinity

Blumwald said his plants will help repair salt-damaged soil. They actually
remove salt, retaining most of it in their leaves.

Salt blocks plants from absorbing enough water. Blumwald and his colleagues
engineered the plants to produce proteins that hide the salt in vacuoles,
large storage areas in cells that don't interfere with the plants' growth.
Most of the soil's salt ends up in the tomato plants' leaves.
California fields, which haven't been farmed as long as the rest of the
country's, aren't having significant salinity problems yet.
But Blumwald said that in the next 30 years, California farmers will have to
deal with salty fields as they continue to rely on irrigation.
"There's going to be trouble," Blumwald said.