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Consider the Tomato

There’s not a person in America who doesn’t dream of tasting once more the tomatoes that grew in Grandpa’s backyard. There’s not a foodie who doesn’t associate regular supermarket tomatoes with recycled products of the paper industry.

Yet, no other crop in American agriculture has evolved to satisfy as many diverse consumer needs and wishes as the tomato, the usually red fruit of the plant Solanum lycopersicum. From its origin, most likely around 500 B.C. in Mexico, it became truly a global crop with major production in China, India, the U.S., Turkey, Egypt, and just about everywhere.

Processed tomatoes are associated with ketchup, BBQ sauce, pasta, pizza, salsa from Mexico, couscous from North Africa, and numerous dishes from south and east Asia.

Fresh tomatoes take up a large part of the produce section in supermarkets. They come in all sizes (cherry, grape, campari, plum, pear, slicing, beefsteak) and in many shapes and colors. Some are branded, some are packed in single-serving tubs. Some lack flavor and texture, while others can be a gastronomic delight.

A global supply chain delivers tomatoes from California, Arizona, Florida, Mexico, Canada, and the Netherlands. But millions of them also travel from your neighbors’ backyards. Tomatoes in the U.S. are a $5 billion industry at the farm gate.

No crop has been tweaked and manipulated with high technology like the tomato. Seeds (mostly hybrid) are tested individually and primed for synchronized germination, vigorous early growth, and emergence. Seedlings are then treated for early nutrition and protection against pests and diseases.

There were even GMO tomatoes at one time. Flavr Savr tomatoes were eventually discontinued.

In the field, tomatoes are planted with real-time kinematic inch-accurate planters. Drip irrigation optimizes water usage as it trickles in root-level nutrition with additional protections against insects, mites, and diseases. The integrated pest management protocols are approved by processors, regulators, and customers.

Greenhouse tomatoes achieve productivity levels 10 times higher than their in-field cousins. Each greenhouse plant can be harvested 10 times in a single season. Hydroponic systems go as far as managing color and taste. Fully enclosed systems come close to near 100% recycling of water and nutrients. Greenhouses approach energy neutrality with advanced LED lighting and active and passive solar energy. Some tomato greenhouses don’t even need land; they are put on top of existing buildings in urban settings.

Tomato grafting is a common practice. Plants with desirable consumer features are put on top of rugged and resistant rootstock. Grafting robots and harvesting robots will hit the market soon. In Korea, plans are progressing to give consumers in a not-too-distant future individualized tomatoes, bred and grown for a particular taste preference or nutritional or medical need.

It all makes No. 2 yellow field corn seem somewhat boring, doesn’t it?

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