Activity Report

The future of food seen through tomatoes

tomato, mozzarella” by stu_spivack/ CC BY-SA 2.0

“People can afford manners only after clothing and food.” So goes the famous words in Guanzi, the ancient book of Chinese philosophy compiled during the Zhanguo period and Han Dynasty. These words of wisdom come from a time when being able to meet the basic needs of food, shelter and clothing was perceived as an ideal for a country. Many centuries later now, what ideals do we have for the future state of food? One of the current research themes at The KAITEKI Institute (TKI) is the future of food, which we are studying taking a scientific as well as sociological approach. There are parts of the world that still suffer from food shortage and climatic abnormalities, but many places have already solved the issue of food quantity. However, there is no end to the human pursuit of its ever higher quality.

Provence Restaurants, Tomato Festival 2013 by N Wong/ CC BY-ND 2.0

Tomatoes are one of the most abundantly grown crops in the world today, with annual global production amounting to 1.5 trillion tons (FAOSTAT 2010). Tomatoes are consumed in salads, ketchup, tomato juice, and much more, and recently in Japan we even see specialty ‘tomato restaurants’ and tomato desserts. The origin of the now ubiquitous tomato is said to be the South American country of Peru; it was a plant that grew bearing tiny fruit in the harsh, arid climate with strong sun during the day and cool temperatures at night. The tomato plant was first brought to Europe and Spain for ornamental purposes, and only later on did the fruit come to be consumed as food. Initial public reception of the edible tomato was not very good though, and records from the 16th century show that it was even written off as being “bad for health” (“World history of cultivar improvement” by Yasuo Ukai and Ryo Osawa, Yushokan 2010).

The tomato has come a long way since then, with developments in cooking and cultivation methods and many varieties, which has made it one of the most highly valued crops in the world today. From the standpoint of food science and physiology, the antioxidant effects of lycopene and other nutritional benefits of tomatoes have gained attention in recent times. Another reason for the tomato’s popularity is taste; specifically, the tomato has a high content of umami (glutamic acid), the taste component discovered by Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University that is said to contribute to how delicious foods taste.


Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd.
Nature Vol.485, 31 May 2012 , copyright 2012

Improvements in tomato varieties have been made not only to meet the needs and preferences of consumers but those of producers. Throughout its history, many varieties have been developed with a range of characteristics; tomatoes that are easier to grow, resistant to the more than 200 species of known viruses and bacteria as well as various pests, or adaptive to different cultivation environments such as places that are very hot or dry. In recent times, American supermarkets have placed priority on long shelf life, ease of transport and storage, and appearance of tomatoes at the sacrifice of taste, resulting in many consumers lamenting over the loss of its authentic taste; in industrial agriculture, it can be said that producers’ needs have gotten rather ahead of those of consumers.’

In 2012, genome sequencing of the tomato variety Heinz 1706 was completed as the result of international collaboration, and since then, many more varieties have undergone genome sequencing. We are coming to know more and more about the differences between varieties on a genetic level, as well as the process of their evolution. It is quite possible that in the near future, we will be able to develop a variety of tomato that will meet the needs of consumers, producers, and distributors that will also be good for the environment. Among those might be varieties suited for cultivation in plant factories, or varieties that provide special benefits to human health. TKI will continue to study the rapidly developing field of genomics and information science as well as social systems to formulate a vision for the future of food.

February 07, 2014