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How a genetically modified purple tomato was mistakenly identified as non-GMO

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

This winter as seed catalogs started showing up in gardeners' mailboxes, one stood out. Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company splashed photos of the purple galaxy tomato on its cover. It bragged, This beauty is believed to be the first and the purplest non-GMO purple tomato in the universe. The only problem - it was genetically modified. Here's Boise State Public Radio's Sasa Woodruff.

SASA WOODRUFF, BYLINE: A tomato with purple flesh has been a holy grail of plant breeders because it means a higher level of the antioxidant anthocyanin. That's the purple pigment in eggplant and blueberries that gives them superfood status. Traditional breeding has only ever produced one with purple skin. When John Brazaitis of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds heard from a hobby farmer in France who had bred a purple flesh tomato, he went to check it out.

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JOHN BRAZAITIS: When we first saw the tomato, it was just - bells went off. It was fireworks. It was just a beautiful moment.

WOODRUFF: GMOs are banned in France, and so Baker Creek acquired the seeds assuming they were non-GMO. But some scientists and tomato enthusiasts weren't so sure.

DAVID FRANCIS: When they came out with that catalog and I saw the picture, I had discussions with colleagues about it, and all of us just looked at it and said, well, that's the GMO tomato.

WOODRUFF: That's David Francis, a professor of crop science at Ohio State University who specializes in tomato genetics. He's talking about a plant developed by a lab in the U.K. using snapdragon flower genes. It took 20 years to develop, and it was approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2022. Nathan Pumplin is with Norfolk Healthy Produce. It's the U.S. arm of the company that developed the GMO purple tomato. When he saw Instagram videos of Baker Creek's version, he contacted them.

NATHAN PUMPLIN: I was very curious, open-minded, interested to learn more about how it came about.

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WOODRUFF: Baker Creek's tomato initially tested negative for a known GMO marker. But after some back-and-forth, Baker Creek pulled it and destroyed the stock. So how did a plant with DNA from an unrelated organism end up in an heirloom seed catalog? Baker Creek's Brazaitis says he's not a scientist, but...

BRAZAITIS: Here we are, the tip of the spear on this issue now. What does it all actually mean? What happens when you see a cross in your backyard and you don't know it?

WOODRUFF: Tomato expert Francis says this isn't a case of the modified tomato genes escaping into the wild from a lab.

FRANCIS: I don't think it's a runaway train. You could easily argue that Baker Creek has it in their catalog because somebody misappropriated it and they didn't do their due diligence.

WOODRUFF: Baker Creek didn't specifically test for snapdragon genes, and Francis says humans were most certainly involved in the spread.

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FRANCIS: Who knows how it got out? It's not like an escape. It's, you know, somebody took it and said, hey, I'm going to play with this.

WOODRUFF: Still, Baker Creek's Brazaitis is concerned and says gardeners won't know if they're growing GMOs.

BRAZAITIS: We were absolutely over the moon about, oh, my gosh, we found this really unique variety. The comedown from that has been really hard.

WOODRUFF: There are fears that GMOs could take over, but Francis says that's unfounded, and tomato biodiversity is thriving.

FRANCIS: Contemporary tomatoes - you know, what we're using today - are more genetically diverse than the heirloom tomatoes of old.

WOODRUFF: That's because as traditional breeders improve disease resistance and nutrition, our food gene pool is actually widening.

For NPR News, I'm Sasa Woodruff.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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