The history behind a number of crop plants.
Looking at where they originated, their domestication, the introduction of these crops to Europe, how European attitudes to them changed over the centuries and ultimately how our changing demands have influenced the plants themselves.
How the tomato has changed
Wild tomatoes are small and often green, hairy and bitter tasting. Not very appetising and a far cry from the tomatoes we would buy in the shops. But by the time the tomato had reached Europe (in the 1500s) it had already been domesticated by native Americans. In fact it seems that they had bred tomatoes of all sizes, shapes and colours.
The first tomato to be described in Europe was large, ribbed on the outside and yellow in colour. However soon other types of tomatoes appear in the records, including ones that were small and round like our cherry tomatoes.
Tomatoes changed little in the next 200 years. Then, as their popularity as a food increased, they became an important commercial crop. Suddenly it was in farmers interest to improve tomato plants.
At first farmers concentrated on breeding plants with better yield (how much tomato fruit could be grown on a plant) and appearance. The plants became more productive and tomatoes became rounder, smoother and mostly red in colour. The amount of varieties (each suited to different climates and tastes) available increased rapidly in this first burst of tomato breeding.
As demand increased it became clear that tomatoes would sell all year round. This was a problem for countries where tomatoes would only grow in the summer. Attempts were made to breed tomatoes that would produce fruit earlier in the year but the best solution appeared to be to transport tomatoes from warmer areas where the plants would fruit all year. To do this the tomatoes had to be made tougher so they could survive transport without damage. This meant breeding tomatoes with thicker skin that are less prone to splitting and breeding firmer tomatoes that are less likely to burst or bruise. Producing tomatoes of a regular size and shape also became important, as this allowed efficient packing of the tomatoes for their journey.
Increasing firmness has also increased the ease of tomato picking. To aid tomato picking further, plants that produce and ripen all their fruit at the same time and tomatoes that separate easily from their stalks have also been bred. These developments have decreased the cost of picking tomatoes and have paved the way for picking by machines.
One of the other great drivers for tomato breeders is disease prevention. Tomato breeders have pitted their wits against the continuously evolving challenge of disease since the very earliest days and it remains one of their greatest challenges. In modern large field plantations or greenhouses of very similar tomato plants disease can spread extremely rapidly.
The first half of the 20th century saw a dramatic development in the approach to farming. Increased availability and use of pesticides and fertilisers changed the demands of all types of farmers. Plants that could take up and benefit from high levels of fertilisers and resist otherwise very effective pesticides were now needed to make the most of modern farming techniques.
By the 1980s tomatoes had become cheaper than ever and were available to the western world 365 days a year. But there was a growing feeling that consumers and producers alike had lost sight of why the tomato was such a desirable crop: its delicious taste. All the attention on breeding these other desirable attributes into tomatoes meant that the flavour, texture and nutritional value of tomatoes took a back seat. Since then there has been a growing interest in the quality – taste, flavour and nutritional content - of tomatoes.
To find out more about how EU-SOL aims to produce tomatoes with better flavour texture and nutritional value, click here.
To find out the techniques that plant breeders have used to develop the wild tomato into the varied product available today, click here.