Breeding tastier tomatoes: Are there better options?

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Not long ago, I read about a scientist named Harry Klee, who is trying to make the world a better place for tomato eaters. He knows he’ll never make a supermarket tomato as delicious as one grown with love in a garden, but he is sure he can improve the flavor of mass market hardballs through better crossbreeding and chemistry. One of his colleagues, I also read, happened to be one of the world’s foremost experts on taste. She was recruiting an army of diverse tasters to test whatever the crazed Klee might come up with.

Born in 1952, he is old enough to remember when tomatoes tasted like they were supposed to. “I sometimes wonder if there’s a whole generation of people who have never eaten a decent commercial tomato,” he says.

So how did tomatoes, especially mass-market tomatoes, lose their mojo? Once upon a time—let’s say before 1960—tomatoes were a local seasonal crop wherever they were grown.

Companies that supplied national markets, though, wanted what Klee calls an “industrial tomato,” one hardy enough to survive shipping, viruses, and insects. An industrial tomato would grow uniformly large and round. It would ripen, not a little at a time, but relatively quickly and evenly. Scientists, cross-breeding different varieties, developed a kind of Frankenmato. The new boy was big, hard, and round. Picked green, it could be reddened by exposure to ethylene gas and not rot for weeks.

For Klee, the idea is to find a tasty tomato that is also hardy, large, bug resistant, and will survive a long time on the shelf. The problem: No such tomato apparently exists. He’s been trying to create his own by cross-breeding different varieties, not once but hundreds of times, year after year after year, in the lab, in the greenhouse, in farm fields. And then he analyzes those tomatoes again and again, with a special focus on flavor, specifically the perception of flavor.

Read full, original article: Building a Better Tomato: The Quest to Perfect “The Scandalous Fruit”

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