New tomato variety could change urban farming and cultivation

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GENE-EDITED tomato plants that can be grown in small areas and potentially even in outer space have been developed by scientists at the New York-based Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, according to a release.

These new “urban agriculture tomatoes” grow in compact bunches instead of on long vines and can be harvested in a shorter period of time. They can be cultivated in converted storage containers and other locations with limited space.

Zachary Lippman, a genetics professor at the lab, said in the release this research shows tomatoes and other crops can be produced in new ways without tearing up land and causing fertiliser runoff to rivers and streams.

“Here’s a complementary approach to help feed people, locally and with a reduced carbon footprint,” he said. The new tomato plants were created with the CRISPR gene-editing tool, changing two genes controlling reproductive growth and plant size.

Lippman and his research team found some genes could only be modified to a certain extent before flavor or yield would be compromised, so they located a third gene controlling stem length and edited it — resulting in shorter stems, more compact plants and good flavor.

The technique, discussed in a December article in the journal Natural Biotechnology , could be used on other fruits such as kiwi, Lippman said. He and his colleagues have also used CRISPR gene editing to try to enhance the commercialisation potential of the wild groundcherry.

Since these new tomato plants can be grown nearly anywhere, they could change the way companies acquire and produce certain vegetable and fruit crops. Some growers might decide to expand beyond traditional agricultural practices and try indoor farming, which can result in higher yields, lower production and distribution costs and fresher products.

Many urban farms currently produce mainly lettuce and other leafy green vegetables, so this gene-editing approach could expand the crop repertoire for vertical farming and urban agriculture.

Regenerative agriculture — using more sustainable practices to reduce negative impacts on land and other natural resources — is also gaining traction with food manufacturers as consumers seek out greener products with traceable origins that are easier on the planet. Sales of such items could see a boost as a result.

In the case of tomatoes, gene-edited ones might help reduce U.S. reliance on Mexican imports, which comprise about half of those sold here. Some consumers might not want to buy fresh produce created through genetic modification, so that could present a marketing challenge going forward.

However, up-and-coming consumer groups, including millennials and Generation Z, have shown greater acceptance of food technology than older ones. There are already plenty of gene edited food items on the market.

Other products derived from the technology include so-called “jointless” tomatoes without a residual stem to poke holes in mechanically harvested fruit, bananas that resist fungus, and higher-yielding corn, soy and wheat.

Idaho’s J.R. Simplot Co. and its corporate and academic partners are also currently using CRISPR to limit waste in potatoes, avocados and strawberries due to poor storage or shelf life.

Besides gene editing, additional techniques are being used to produce new tomato varieties. Through crossbreeding, Cornell University’s Phillip Griffiths has created highly productive snack-sized tomatoes that are organic and sustainable.

Griffiths’ Galaxy Suite tomato varieties — with astronomy inspired names, including Starlight, Sungrazer and Supernova — may appear in stores soon and could continue to shake up the produce aisle in the future.

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