Anthocyanins are anti-oxidant plant pigments credited with wide-ranging therapeutic effects.
Support for the well-accepted role of anthocyanins in folk medicine the world over has since been confirmed by epidemiology and, more recently, by an increasing body of science.
Many research trials have demonstrated anthocyanins' marked ability to inhibit tumour formation and cancer-cell proliferation. Protection from cardio-vascular disease and age-related neuro-degenerative disorders have been clearly shown in scientific studies.
Enter 'genetically-improved' tomatoes, turned purple by their newly acquired ability to generate anthocyanins and thereby re-jigged to make everyone healthy.
In fact, the announcement of the first truly successful GM high-anthocyanin tomato, created by scientists at the John Innes Centre (JIC) in England came in 2008. Reported at the same time was that these purple tomatoes had been fed to GM cancer-prone mice, where they increased life-span by about 30%. A flurry of media coverage in the press, radio and TV made sure everyone knew that, thanks to GM, tomatoes could now protect you from cancer, and a stack of other nasty modern conditions.
All this upbeat coverage came from JIC's own press release which included a quote from the Centre's Professor Cathie Martin that “The next step will be to take the preclinical data forward to human studies with volunteers to see if we can promote health through dietary preventative medicine strategies”. The answer to cancer was, it seemed, just round the corner.
However, at the same time a (less widely reported) press release from JIC collaborators at the European Institute of Oncology warned: “we have not taken into account any possible toxicity so ... we're far from considering a human trial”.
After some years of silence, the JIC announced in May 2013 that its unusually-hued GM tomatoes could not only ward off cancer, but had unexpected additional benefits to growers and all their customers. Purple tomatoes, it seems, have a longer shelf-life because their novel anthocyanins confer resistance to 'grey mould', the tomato's most common fungal pest. And not only this, but the GM fruit is better tasting because it exhibits delayed ripening, allowing the tomatoes to remain on the vine longer before harvesting.
The time scale to commercial availability of the GM tomatoes was reportedly 2015 in the US and later in the UK due to the “unenlightened”, “tougher regulatory process” here.
Again, there was a splurge of media coverage. The Telegraph reported that a Canadian firm was growing the GM tomatoes for the JIC researchers who hoped “to test its health benefits in a clinical trial within the next 12 months”. However, in case this all sounded a bit too gung-ho-pro-GM for the public stomach, the GM tomatoes were really (apparently) a tool to allow scientists to “pinpoint exactly how to breed in valuable traits” and “a new target for breeders”. Since the genetic transformation involved two look-alike snapdragon genes, the role of these GM tomatoes in guiding breeding isn't clear.
The arrival of the first shipment of the 2000 litres of GM tomato juice from Canada in January 2014 to be “tested for its effects on human health” (Independent) put the purple tomato once more in the media spotlight.
As GM concern groups pointed out, since no toxicological testing, nor the requisite research on healthy volunteers had been published, plans to test for therapeutic effects seemed disturbingly premature.
Also in January, a JIC Facebook post clearly describes the purpose of the GM juice from Canada as being to generate “industry collaborations and to start the process of seeking the regulatory authorisation needed to bring commercial juice to market”. The 'aid to breeding' idea of 2013 seems to have evaporated in favour of a full-steam ahead GM push to market.
By the end of that month, the JIC seems to have realised that its own GM hype, which it had allowed the media to sensationalise without restraint, had become so wildly incorrect that the whole situation might be about to backfire on its reputation. The Centre, accordingly, posted a “Clarification on purple tomatoes following media coverage” on Facebook. Its purple GM juice, it seems is for the sole purpose of initiating further research trials. There are “no plans for any clinical trials with heart patients”.
The JIC further clarified that the GM juice is to “help investigate the link between anthocyanin consumption and reductions in chronic disease risk factors e.g. markers for risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and degenerative diseases”. Wasn't it the proven existence of these very same links to health benefits that excused the creation of the GM anthocyanin-generating tomatoes in the first place? Something about horses and carts springs to mind.
Since toxicology testing of the JIC's GM tomatoes has not yet reached the starting line, it seems unlikely that Europe's 'unenlightened' regulators are anything to do with the reason the GM tomatoes will take more than a couple of years to get to market.
John Innes Centre Facebook Posts 25.01.14 and 31.01.14
Purple tomatoes may keep cancer at bay, John Innes Centre press release, October 2008
Are Cathie Martin and the JIC throwing medical ethics in the bin? GM Watch 28.01.14
GM Purple Tomatoes Set for EU Legal Problems over Human Testing, Sustainable Pulse 26.01.14
Clive Cookson, Purple tomato juice from Canada for clinical trial in UK, http://sundiatapost.com 25.01.14
Tomatoes, said to be the world's most popular fruit, can be made both better-tasting and longer-lasting thanks to UK research with purple GM varieties, John Innes Centre Press Release 23.05.13
Nick Collins, Genetically modified purple tomato 'tastier than normal varieties', Telegraph 23.05.13