Rutgers sees red with new, improved campus tomato
If a tomato pageant existed, the new Rutgers tomato would be crowned Miss Universe. It is everything you want in a tomato — beautiful, durable and delicious.
The tomato is a resurrection of the original Rutgers Tomato created in the 1930s. Created as a means to revive some Rutgers pride, the tomato also has some potentially greater implications in the age of environmental friendliness.
Thomas Orton, a professor from the Department of Plant Biology and Pathology, spearheaded the project.
“We thought it would be sort of a fun idea to reinvent it, particularly with the 250th anniversary of the institution coming up," he said.
The original Rutgers Tomato had prestige and many sought-after qualities. Compared to other tomatoes at the time, it grew in a shorter amount of time and was more solidly colored.
Once Orton became aware that the Campbell Soup Company had the original parent stock, he decided to develop a new and better tomato as a tribute.
“We had added some additional selection criteria," he said. "It’s a little bit firmer, more crack-resistant, more uniform in color and has a higher yield."
The creators of the original tomato did not give much thought to taste, remarking that it “’had a pleasing taste.’”
Orton, on the other hand, made improving the flavor, such as its sweetness, tartness and acidity, central to his project.
“We had taste tested all along the way to make sure that what we were doing was heading in the right direction as far as flavor because a big concern of our's is consumers of fresh produce and gardeners too,” he said.
The majority of taste tests were done informally, consisting of Orton pulling people off the streets to get their opinion on the tomato’s flavor.
“It’s quite valuable to ask some people in the street what they think because they’re the ones who are ultimately tasting them," he said.
Orton plans to release the seeds this coming January in 2016. The Rutgers program is aimed primarily at small growers and home gardeners.
This seems like especially good news to proponents of the local food movement.
Alexandra Matthews, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences first-year student, said she supports local farming because it builds the community and is good for the local economy.
Orton hopes this tomato supports local farming, makes farming more profitable and maintains a healthy agriculture economy in New Jersey.
This tomato is only the first of many new tomatoes that Orton is developing.
“I also have a program aimed at larger growers which is more for the F1 hybrids that combine high yield and plant performance with better flavor," he said.
An F1 hybrid plant is one that was first developed through hybridization, which is when two different species are cross-pollinated to breed a new one. Open-pollination is when plants are pollinated naturally, and this method is then used to refine the F1 hybrid and keep propagating it.
Some question whether this a case of genetic modification, which is a practice that is controversial to some consumers.
Tom Brady, a Rutgers Business School first-year student, believes this tomato does count as a “genetically-modified organism."
“Oftentimes GMO has a very negative connotation associated with it even though for hundreds of years we’ve been genetically modifying organisms to some extent whether it’s through artificial selection or splicing genes together," he said.
Orton, on the other hand, said this tomato is not a GMO because it was not made in a lab. The tomato was made solely through hybridization and open-pollination.
“To me, many people are missing the point of the debate," Orton said. "For any tool, you can use it for good and bad things, and there happened to be some people who used it irresponsibly. But other than that, it’s just a tool."
Orton would not be opposed to using genetic modification in the future, although for this project he used only conventional breeding methods.
So tomāto, tomäto. Either way, this tomato checks out.