Food & Drink

Frankenfood: a global food revolution with local roots

Illustration By Terry Allen

You can’t live through a Sacramento summer without discovering the joys of driving while mashing. Tomatoes, that is.

You’re pushing down the highway behind a behemoth double-bed tomato truck coming in from the fields when, suddenly, the hauler makes a too-quick lane change to the offramp. Watch those red babies fly! Hundreds of spilled tomatoes bounce all over the interstate, with you in pursuit, squashing as much pre-marinara red produce into the hot pavement as you can.

Not exactly appetizing behavior, people.

But did you know that the same red-round beauties were the focus of a genuine food revolution to which our region first gave birth? Davis, with its world-renowned agricultural university, holds the dubious honor of being the starting place of the global biotech food industry. Indeed, it was a local company that put the first genetically modified food on the market.

Called the Flavr Savr, the little-tomato-that-could was genetically designed to remain on the vine longer, so as to ripen to full flavor before harvest. (Most tomatoes are harvested green and hard, ripen en route to market and never achieve peak flavor.)

Created by Calgene, a local biotech start-up whose think tank included many UC Davis scientists, the Flavr Savr was grown after a bit of DNA was modified and then applied to a tomato crop. The Flavr Savr was the first biotech food to be cleared by Food and Drug Administration regulators, who claimed it was as safe as tomatoes grown by conventional means. In the spring of 1994, the revolution hit the market. In 1996, Calgene—with its messianic prophesies about how the genetic food revolution would solve world hunger, among other things—wa s bought out by Monsanto, a global leader in all things biotech.

But things didn’t work out as planned for the buff tomato.

Mixed reviews came in from official tomato taste testers, and the Flavr Savr became mired in supply problems, marketing controversies and financial trouble. By 1998, the Flavr Savr was removed from supermarket shelves and was, much later, dubbed an “economic disaster” by The Wall Street Journal, a publication that recently tallied up losses of the biotech food industry (since its inception) at more than $40 billion.

Today, the debate about genetically modified foods rages on. And whatever one’s opinion about the necessity or safety of such foods, it is clear, at least, that the revolution has not yet lived up to its early ad copy. As critics are quick to point out, biotech crops have not increased food production or increased yields, as was initially predicted. Nor have they reduced herbicide or pesticide use.

As for helping bring an end to world hunger, more people go hungry today than ever before in the history of the world. As it turns out, hunger isn’t caused by a scarcity of food. It’s a political, social and economic problem.

Still, historians would advise us not to be too fast in predicting the demise of the “brave new world” of biotech food or, for that matter, the fate of the resultant, parallel global protest movement against so-called frankenfood.

Next time you find yourself smashing tomatoes on the highway, consider how the whole genetically engineered ag phenomenon started right here.