Biologist Don Grierson (right) tells Alison Goddard about his race against the Americans to genetically engineer tomatoes and why his resulting tomato puree was such a success. But, below, in the face of concern about modified foods
Two warm and fragrant tomatoes sit on Don Grierson's desk at the University of Nottingham. They are just beyond the stage of ripeness at which they would normally be eaten; the skin has started to split revealing the pink flesh within. I cannot resist picking up one and smelling it.
"It's OK, they're not genetically modified," Professor Grierson reassures me after entering the room. For Grierson, who heads the plant sciences division at the university, is the brain behind the genetically engineered tomato puree that has been sold at Sainsbury's and Safeway supermarkets for the past two years. But although his puree is sold in the United Kingdom, the genetically modified tomatoes from which it is made are grown in the United States.
Compared with the recent public concern over genetically engineered maize and oil seed rape, the genetically modified tomato puree has had an easy ride. It was the first genetically engineered food to be sold in Britain, and its launch in February 1996 - when the protests over the Newbury bypass were at a peak - seems to have caught environmental campaigners off guard.
Grierson is convinced that the careful handling of public anxiety by the puree's developers and the supermarkets was the key to its acceptance. The puree is packaged with a prominent label that tells shoppers that it is made from genetically modified tomatoes. And leaflets about how it was engineered are available on supermarket shelves.
"The key thing is that the product is labelled," he says. "This is not a scientific issue. It is not a safety issue. It is just a question of recognising people's individuality, and their concerns, and their right to know."
The voluntary decision to label seems to have paid off: the puree is selling well. In the past two-and-a-half years, 1.6 million cans have been sold. In some stores, particularly those in university towns, the puree outsells the conventional variety.
Demand has increased since its launch, according to Tony Coombes of Safeways supermarket. At 29p for a 170 grams can, the genetically modified puree is better value than the conventional concentrate, which sells at 29p for 142 grams. And last month, the University of Nottingham collected its first royalty cheque - totalling thousands of pounds - for UK sales.
Yet Grierson is deeply critical of the attitude taken by other sellers of genetically engineered food, in particular of the way in which the US biotechnology company Monsanto introduced to the UK genetically engineered soya mixed in with the conventional variety. The failure to separate out the two types of soya has left shoppers with no information about how much genetically engineered soya is contained in many everyday products and therefore no choice about what to buy.
"I think that recent history with multinational companies bringing food products into the UK - genetically modified soya and maize - shows how important that early voluntary decision to label was," he says. "People were outraged (at Monsanto's actions) because they wanted to be treated - rightly - as individuals with minds of their own, with free will."
Grierson is pleased that his research of the past 24 years has found an application. "When we set out," he says, "our only motivation was to try to understand what happened when fruit ripened. It was just curiosity-driven scientific research. But, as so often happens in science, when you uncover some of the secrets, then ways of improving, in this case, the plant, also occurred to us."
Fruit is routinely harvested before it is ripe and refrigerated on its way to market. The early harvest means that the colour, flavour and texture changes that take place during normal ripening are lost. Grierson and his team discovered a gene for softening ripe fruit - and how to inactivate it so that the fruit could be picked later and still make the journey from field to shop without getting too squishy. But he had to fight to see his ideas realised.
For on the other side of the world, in Davis, California, another research group, working with the biotechnology company Calgene, was using Grierson's ideas to develop its own tomato, the Flavr Savr.
In 1994 this became the first genetically modified food to be approved for sale - and is still probably the best-known. Yet it was not developed by Grierson, who is obviously terribly keen on being first. What happened?
For many years, Grierson collaborated with the company Zeneca, which was responsible for developing products from his research. Grierson says that Zeneca was more careful about identifying the market for a genetically modified tomato than was Calgene, which is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Monsanto. "Calgene said: we will leave the tomato longer on the plant, we will get a better flavour, texture and aroma, call it the Flavr Savr, and it won't go mushy and squashy. And consumers will pay a lot more for it. Well, it is off the market now." Grierson smiles. He looks pleased about Calgene's failure to make the science work. For although Flavr Savr was sold for a couple of years it was withdrawn because the fruit travels such long distances in the US that even genetic engineering cannot stop it rotting.
Meanwhile, Zeneca decided to concentrate on producing a processed rather than fresh product: a genetically engineered tomato puree which could be made more cheaply than the conventional sort because there would be no waste from rotting fruit. "Zeneca realised how to market the genetic change," Grierson adds. "The obvious market was for fresh tomatoes. But they analysed it in detail and thought hard about it and said that (the tomato) was not good enough. And they were right. It was very good thinking and analysis on the part of the commercial scientists that we were working with."
This is certainly part of the story. But another source says that there was also a dispute between Zeneca and Calgene over who should patent the gene that ripens tomatoes. The disagreement was resolved only after the Zeneca scientists - realising the dispute was to be fought on American soil - identified the potential for a processed rather than a fresh tomato product. Grierson is coy about the details. But he is pleased that the Flavr Savr has failed. "I must confess that there was a slight rivalry between us and Calgene and so it is quite nice to see that the scientific effort and the commercial thinking that went in on our team has turned out to be rightI," he says.
And he can still claim a scientific first, particularly since the Calgene work relies on his studies. "I visited (Calgene) a couple of times and met their scientists at several conferences. We exchanged letters. And the first paper published by Calgene scientists cites nine of ours in the reference list. And that always amused me. Not amused - pleased - that's a better word. It showed that we, even at that stage, had done an awful lot of the important preliminary work."
Now he stands to be a rich man. The commercial value of the tomato crop worldwide is about $13 billion, and Grierson has further patents on a number of other genes that appear to affect the quality of tomatoes. Moreover, his work may be applicable to many other fruits and green vegetables.
"I think a significant amount of money will come to the University of Nottingham," says Grierson. And also to him, because the university operates a royalty-sharing agreement with its researchers to encourage them to file patents. It is an arrangement he approves of. "Patenting is of no immediate advantage to a scientist," he says. "The scientist is interested in the joy and the excitement of discovery, and talking about it to colleagues, and publishing the results and getting recognition for it. If the nation wants scientists to say 'I think this idea is worth patenting, I think there is a commercial possibility here' then there has to be an incentive because it is far easier not to patent, not to bother," he points out.
The puree is now so popular that Zeneca does not have enough tomatoes to supply the UK demand. It hopes to gain permission to grow the crop in Europe. "The plants are grown in America because that was the first country where the regulatory procedures for growing genetically modified crops and producing genetically modified food were sensibly worked out," says Grierson. "The European Union and the UK are still in a turmoil - what do you do? How do you do it? What are the forms? Which committees? And so on and so forth. Our research was commercialised in the US and the product is sold here."
But Grierson remains wary of offending the public, of moving too quickly. Throughout the interview he has been trying to gauge my attitude to genetically-modified foods and by now he decides that I am against them and says so. And then he tries to argue me out of what he assumes is my position.
"My prediction is that in ten to 15 years, almost all plant foods will be genetically modified in some way because it is just a special case of high-tech precision plant breeding," he says. "For the time being, it is novel, it will cause concern and worry to some people, it might even raise moral issues in the minds of some people. And I don't think it is appropriate to say 'everyone is looking after you, we can assure you that there is nothing wrong with it, therefore you don't need to be told'. I don't think that is an appropriate response."
Instead, he advocates addressing public concern. "I don't think any more that we can say that we are scientists, we understand an awful lot, but we can't explain it to you, we are going to stay in our ivory towers," he says. "(We must address the public's concerns) by talking, explaining, by learning to explain at an appropriate level for the people who are listening. And, I have to say, by getting furiously mauled by people in the media who want to take a particular line."