The Plant Transformation Facility at the University of California, Davis, has been the scene of more than 15,000 "transgenic events," which is the term molecular biologists use when they blast DNA from one life form into another. In room 192 of Robbins Hall, a brick building not far from the student union, thousands of microscopic plantlets grow in Petri dishes bathed in pink and fluorescent blue light.
Here, molecular biologists can mix what were previously sexually incompatible species together using a gas-pump-like tool called the Helium Particle Delivery System. Using bullets (literally) made out of gold, they fire genes from one species into another in a bombardment chamber. The Davis lab has given birth to grapes spiked with jellyfish, tomatoes spiked with carp, transgenic squash, transgenic carrots, transgenic tomatoes.
Another important site in genetic engineering history, an innocuous office building about a ten-minute drive from Robbins Hall, is the birthplace of the most audacious plant in the history of high-tech plants. Among biotech people and anti-bio-tech people, this plant, a tomato, needs no introduction. The so-called Flavr Savr was supposed to be the game changer--longer shelf life, better yield, better taste. Calgene, the company that created the Flavr Savr, claimed it could bring "backyard flavor" to the supermarket tomato.
Achieving "backyard flavor" in an industrial-scale, California-grown tomato has long been one of the holy grails of the $4 billion-plus tomato industry. During the pre-tomato launch hype-a-thon, the president of Calgene claimed that genetic engineering could not only bring us the tomato of our childhood dreams, but also remake the taste of the tomato, tailored to our every desire: "Eventually we're going to design acidic tomatoes for the New Jersey palate and sweet tomatoes for the Chicago palate."
The Flavr Savr turned out to be the Edsel of the produce world, a spectacular failure not just for Calgene, but for the whole biotech industry. This purportedly longer-shelf-life tomato became the lightning rod for much of the anti-genetically modified organism (GMO) movement. People learned about other transgenic crops--a potato with a chicken gene, tobacco with a firefly gene, and, perhaps most notoriously, a tomato with an Arctic flounder gene, which provided an image for a Greenpeace anti-GMO campaign. Nongovernmental organizations cried foul. Consumers were alarmed. It was an op-ed about the Flavr Savr where the term Frankenfood first appeared. As for the tomato's taste, most reports said that, far from achieving backyard flavor, it was not that great.
By 1997, supermarkets stopped stocking the bioengineered tomato. The Flavr Savr was a financial disaster for Calgene.
But that was almost fifteen years ago.
One fall day, across campus from the Helium Particle Delivery System, I went to visit Kent Bradford, the director of UC Davis's Seed Biotechnology Center and presumably among the best-positioned people at Davis to answer my burning question: Whatever happened after the Flavr Savr?
The Culinary Potential of Frankenfood
Genetic engineering obviously didn't stop with the Flavr Savr debacle; the use of GMOs has exploded. Many genetically engineered foods can be found throughout our food supply. Genetically modified soybeans and canola dominate the market, which means that most processed food--everything from your spaghetti to your Snickers bar--has GM ingredients. More than 90% of American cotton and 80% of corn crops come from GM seed. All of these crops, though, are what are called "commodity crops." They're not what you pick up at your local greengrocer. They're industrial crops, secondary ingredients. Not what interested me.
What I wanted to know is what was happening with the quest to achieve "backyard flavor"? And what I couldn't get out of my head was this claim that tomatoes could be engineered for precise tastes--"acidic tomatoes for the New Jersey palate and sweet tomatoes for the Chicago palate. …