SAN FRANCISCO — A California researcher has created a tomato that can grow and thrive with salty water, a breakthrough he said could lead to the cultivation of now-barren fields around the world.
University of California, Davis Professor Eduardo Blumwald’s tomato plants can grow using water containing 50 times more salt than normal. His findings are published in this month’s issue of the peer review journal Nature Biotechnology.
The resulting tomato contains three times as much salt than a traditionally grown tomato, but it can’t be tasted, Blumwald said.
He believes his invention can be used by farmers toiling on bad soil and on a variety of crops. Fields doused in large amounts of irrigated water over long periods of time develop high levels of salinity, which stunts crop growth.
Blumwald envisions tomatoes growing in the deserts of the Middle East and on now-fallow lands in India. But for now, the scientist’s tomatoes, with a salt-fighting gene from a plant related to cabbage fused with a tomato plant, is being rejected by many California farmers.
In Five Points, the heart of tomato-growing country, growers are refusing to grow genetically modified crops for the simple reason that they aren’t selling in supermarkets. Until they do, California’s largest farmers won’t touch Blumwald’s tomatoes or any other biotechnology-created crop.
“Biotech is taboo,” said Tom Braner, business manager of Five Points-based grower Tanimura & Antle, which grows 240,000 acres of tomatoes. “Everybody wants organic. Nobody wants genetically modified food.”
Blumwald’s creation isn’t playing well on small organic farms like the ones found around Santa Cruz either.
“It’s a Band-Aid,” said Mark Lipson, co-owner of Molino Creek Farm, which grows organic tomatoes on six acres. Lipson said the “real problem” is over-irrigation of crop land by large corporations. Developing salt-resistant tomatoes isn’t going to improve the deteriorating conditions of the world’s farm lands, Lipson said.
Lipson and other organic farming proponents are also concerned that pollen from biotech crops will contaminate their plants. They also fear hard-to-kill super weeds will sprout from genetically modified pollen.
Other genetically modified food opponents, such as Peter Meechan, chief executive of Newman’s Own Organic food company, contend that not enough research has been done to ensure the food is safe to eat.
“We need to see more testing,” he said.
All of which frustrates Blumwald.
He complains that salinity levels continue to rise while traditional methods of selective breeding of crops has resulted in little relief over the last 100 years. Furthermore, he argues that he’s merely “crossbreeding” plants like farmers have done for centuries.
“I’m not doing anything different than farmers did a thousand years ago,” he said. “Nothing bad is going to happen. This is a solution, not a problem.”
Blumwald said he has developed hundreds of the salt-resistant plants, now being kept in a University of Toronto greenhouse where Blumwald did most of his research. He joined the Davis faculty last year where he hopes to grow his plants in a salt-damaged field if he can secure funding.
U.S. farmers in arid areas such as California’s Central Valley, where most of the country’s tomatoes are grown, use irrigated water – as opposed to rainfall – to grow crops. As irrigated water flows from its source in rivers and streams, minerals
are picked up and deposited in
Fields using irrigated water can become too salty and unfarmable. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that crop production has fallen by 25 percent on irrigated land in the United States because of rising salinity levels.
Blumwald said his plants will help repair salt-damaged soil. They actually remove salt, retaining most of it in their leaves.
Salt blocks plants from absorbing enough water. Blumwald and his colleagues engineered the plants to produce proteins that hide the salt in vacuoles, large storage areas in cells that don’t interfere with the plants’ growth. Most of the soil’s salt ends up in the tomato plants’ leaves.
California fields, which haven’t been farmed as long as the rest of the country’s, aren’t having significant salinity problems yet.
But Blumwald said that in the next 30 years, California farmers will have to deal with salty fields as they continue to rely on irrigation.
“There’s going to be trouble,” Blumwald said.
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