The Florida tomato industry spends almost $100 million each year trying to control bacterial spot disease, primarily with copper fungicides that are ineffective. For over 10 years, 2Blades has been working with University of California Berkeley and University of Florida to develop transgenic tomatoes carrying a gene from pepper that enables the plants to completely resist infection by the Xanthomonas pathogens that cause this disease, without any copper treatments.
2Blades' approach is safe and effective: a 'poster child' for an ideal GM product. The tomatoes contain a gene from their cousin, pepper, and the protein it produces is widely present and consumed in bell and hot pepper varieties. The gene is part of a large gene family found in all plants. It signals the presence of the disease to the plant's natural defense mechanisms and provides significant yield benefits, doubling harvests over susceptible plants. Wide scale deployment of these plants could help reduce the use of copper fungicides which build up in Florida's sandy soils and packing house wastewater.
To boost the durability of this resistance 2Blades added a gene from the cabbage family that gives resistance to bacterial spot through a different mechanism and enables the plants to resist a second disease, bacterial wilt, for which there are no effective controls. We are also testing other traits to further ensure durability of resistance.
Despite strong disease resistance in field trials in the absence of chemical treatments, it is unlikely that these tomatoes will ever reach supermarket shelves. The majority of Florida tomato growers, and hence the vegetable seed industry, fear a lack of consumer acceptance of a GMO tomato and are unwilling to adopt the technology despite its clear benefits.
Companies have indicated they would happy to be a "second adopter" once consumers have accepted the technology, but in the absence of an innovator, the Florida tomato industry will continue to use ineffective, environmentally damaging copper fungicides, including organic growers.
Through the years we've tried a little bit harder and a little bit more to make disease-resistant transgenic tomatoes available, but it is increasingly difficult to continue supporting this program without development partners willing to support new innovations and scientifically sound technologies that can reduce the environmental impact of agriculture whilst simultaneously boosting production.
The wheel is turning and if we are to produce enough food to feed the world's rapidly growing population then we must embrace all tools.