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USDA approves the purchase of purple GM tomato seeds for home growers

Posted: 12 September 2022 | | No comments yet

The USDA has given green light to home growers purchasing Norfolk Plant Science’s nutritionally enhanced high-anthocyanin purple tomato seeds from Spring 2023.

purple tomato plant

Genetically modified (GM) purple tomatoes will be able to be grown in American gardens from 2023.

The news has been welcomed by Norfolk Plant Sciences (NPS) who developed the crop.  

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has investigated the safety of the GM plant and its Animal and Health Inspection Service (APHIS) “has determined that [the Norfolk Plant Sciences’] modified tomato is unlikely to pose an increased plant pest risk relative to its comparator”.

Previously, the purple GM tomato was subject to the regulations limiting “Movement of Organisms Modified or Produced through Genetic Engineering”.

Professor Cathie Martin developed the anthocyanin-rich purple tomato in 2008 by engineering a precise generic ‘on switch’, derived from an edible flower.

Commenting on the USDA’s decision, she said: “This is fantastic, I never thought I would see this day. We are now one step closer to my dream of sharing healthy purple tomatoes with the many people excited to eat them.

“The bittersweet thing is that the tomatoes will be on sale in America and not the UK as well. But the plus side is that by focusing on home growers we will be consumer-oriented, and we will be able to get feedback and interest needed to develop other products.”

Anthocyanins are antioxidants associated with a host of health benefits and are important to an anti-inflammatory diet. Independent studies have shown that antioxidants and anthocyanins can reduce incidences of cancer, improve cardiovascular function and improve health and wellbeing. Other lab studies have suggested that both anthocyanins and antioxidants could help to alleviate irritable bowel syndrome.

Taking supplements is a way to increase human intake of both anthocyanins and antioxidants, however, the John Innes Centre (of which NPS was spun-out) has suggested that there is increasing evidence to show that they work much better when consumed within foods. Purple-skinned tomato varieties do already exist, but the scientists behind the NPS’ tomato claim they are not as compound-rich within the fruit flesh. Therefore, this new approval may give way to improved diets, ultimately paving the way for other researchers to develop products with nutrition in mind.

Consumer interest in the purple GM tomato is evident on the Big Purple Tomato website (operated by NPS), with many stating their desire to buy the tomatoes and seeds once they become available in 2023.

“When Cathie and I founded NPS nearly 15 years ago to bring to market health-promoting, genetically enhanced purple tomatoes, invented in the UK, we never thought it would take so long to obtain regulatory approval. This is a red-letter day for crop improvement, with approval of a beneficial product by USDA, after careful scrutiny of a detailed information dossier that describes its properties,” added Professor Jonathan Jones of The Sainsbury Laboratory.

Though the product has not yet been approved in the UK, Professor Jones holds out hope for progress: “We also look forward to sensible regulatory frameworks for such products in the UK, and effective methods to protect our major crops from disease, using genetics instead of chemistry.”

This USDA decision marks a milestone for NPS and emphasises to other scientists that the developments they are working on also have the ability to be approved and, one day, reach consumers.

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