Have you noticed that tomatoes don’t taste like you remember them tasting when you were younger? In fact, they don’t really have much of a taste period. Well, it turns out that the flavor fall-off is sort of our fault. Tomatoes as Mother Nature made them were cosmetically less than perfect, sometimes red with yellow blotches, rings of green around the top near the stem, and a bruise here and there. Consumers (the royal “we”) wanted a uniformly red tomato every time we went to the grocery store. To appease us, the food scientists went to work, located the gene causing the blemishes, made a mutation, and solved the problem – resulting in perfectly red tomatoes. However, it turns out that the same gene the scientists altered is the one that made natural tomatoes 20% sweeter and gave them an aroma – in other words, it was the gene that helped a tomato smell and taste like a tomato. Scientists confirmed this by removing the alteration to the gene of the tomato; sure enough – discoloration, rings around the top, and flavor returned. Not that there was any going back; the genetically modified tomato won the day. Perfectly red tomatoes all the time, less waste for the farmer and grocery store, higher sales, and, if there were any grumblings about the flavor, well, what were spoiled consumers going to do – grow their own?
Chances are, unless you’ve been diligent about buying organic foods* exclusively, every time you’ve eaten tomatoes, corn, soybeans, and quite a few other foods over the past few years, they’ve been genetically modified (GMO). In the U.S., foods haven’t been labeled and we’ve never really been given a choice. Maybe, having tried the pretty red GMO tomatoes that are tasteless, some customers would be willing to go back to tomatoes with a less-than-perfect appearance in order to get better taste. Want to grow your own? You could, but most of the commercial seeds for tomatoes have already been modified, so you would be going to a lot of trouble to grow the same bland tomato.
What does any of this have to do with tea? Thankfully, as far as we know, nothing … yet. Whereas in the example of the tomato, the rationale for GMO was improving appearance, for many crops the purpose of genetically mutating the plant is for it to be able to survive a particular pesticide that is then used to kill off surrounding weeds or insects that damage the crop. Why would tea not be targeted for such an alteration? Given the labor intensity to produce certain green teas by shading the tea bushes to increase their chlorophyll content, what if you could modify the plant genetics to produce higher chlorophyll content all growing season without the need for special sheltering of the bush for a single harvest? These are premium teas that would generate high financial returns and, in the U.S., there would be no need to make any distinction between the GMO and the natural tea versions – same high retail price, lower production cost, and higher yields. Or would we notice a taste difference? Could some teas be doomed to the fate of the tomato? Looks good, tastes “meh.” What a loss that would be.
* Organic certified foods are often thought of as the gatekeeper that can be a safe haven from GMOs. In the larger context, this can be true, yet in the U.S., the National Organic Program does not define “contaminated” with regards to organic crops, and “Crops grown on certified organic operation may be sold, labeled and represented as organic, even with the inadvertent presence of GMOs, provided that all organic requirements under 7 CFR Part 205 have been followed.” While there is a tolerance level established by the EPA for inadvertent pesticides in organic crops, neither the USDA or the EPA has established any tolerance level for the inadvertent presence of GMOs.