vegetables 927771 1920

Genetic diversity and tasty tomatoes

By Anna Campbell

When I was working in Queensland as a wheat geneticist in the late 1990s, there was an outbreak of a wheat disease called "yellow spot'' caused by the fungus Pyrenophora tritici-repentis.

The outbreak cost farmers millions and they were partially caught out because there hadn't been an outbreak for some years and many of the newer cultivars were not resistant to the fungus.

In response, renewed energy was put into back-crossing modern cultivars with older cultivars and wild relatives to develop improved resistance to the disease.

For me, it was a great lesson in the importance of genetic diversity in the world of food production.

It is quite common in plant breeding to have "germplasm banks'' where seeds are stored from many wild and domesticated varieties.

The seeds of course, are not viable forever, so have to be regenerated frequently. This means the cost in running these germplasm banks is significant, yet they are often a target for saving funds.

What triggered this memory was an article I read recently by Nathanael Johnson, "Modern food is a triumph; modern food is a disaster''.

He describes the US pistachio plantings as having all been derived from one single nut brought into the US in the 1920s by a man with a "crazy idea'' for making money. The US banana and coffee supply is similarly described.

Modern bananas have been cloned from one variety, the Cavendish banana.

Cavendish bananas are sterile, and each new banana plant has to be manually planted from a cutting of existing banana roots.

If you were to eat a wild-type banana, it is full of big hard seeds, with very little flesh and would be a most unpleasant culinary experience.

Of course there is enormous danger in the genetic diversity of our world food supply becoming too narrow and this applies to livestock as well as plants.

Extraordinarily, 95% of the world's calories come from just 30 species.

Yet, on the flip side of that, modern efficient agriculture relies on high-yielding, predictable crops and animals, and in many ways has been a huge success.

In the US, they produce 156% more food than in the 1940s using 26% less land.

For a New Zealand example, our sheep industry produces the same kilograms of meat from only half the ewe flock we had a couple of decades ago. It is an interesting debate and I am not sure there is a wrong or right answer.

Clearly, we need to keep investing in germplasm banks for our plant-based foods and ensuring genetic diversity of our livestock.

But perhaps it is the consumer that will have the final say. Consumers love to try new things and we also have a hankering for days past.

Over Easter, my family hired a house in Owaka and I was delighted to find, straight over the road from us, a roadside store with the most amazingly delicious heritage tomatoes.

Incredibly, they were priced the same as tomatoes in the supermarket - yet they were so much tastier. Needless to say, I had a tomato indulgence that weekend.

Consumers are forever becoming more adventurous. Smart food companies are now often the small innovators, able to offer unique and niche offerings for a higher price.

Owaka people, I think you should price your tomatoes higher.

Reaching into that germplasm bank to commercialise some of those cereal wild-types might be a great investment in our food supply, local business pockets, and probably our health, too.

If you think about New Zealand as a food-producing nation, niche products and marketing will be a bigger part of our future.

We need to be offering consumers something different. Our challenge will be doing this while keeping costs down and getting a return on our expensive land assets. No small task, but interesting to ponder.

Usually business expansion means scale, scale, scale.

In the food world, for the safety of supply, and to reach consumers willing to pay for something different, perhaps our future is niche, niche, niche.