The creation of the Flavr SavrTM tomato
From love apple to Frankenfood
How many people remember the 21st May 1994? This was the day that the first GM tomato, the Flavr Savr, went on sale in Davis, California, an occasion noted for the rush to purchase and the rationing of fruit to two per person per day! Such a thought seems scarcely credible to those to have since witnessed the sight of protesters in surgical masks and overalls carefully uprooting GM crops and placing them in biohazard bags. Twenty years ago, when the atmosphere relating to agricultural biotechnology was more relaxed, the 'Biohazards' was the name of the basketball team of Calgene, the producer of the Flavr Savr tomato and the small Californian company that will forever remain engraved on the Honours Board of GM's hall of fame.
First fruit is written by one of the Calgene scientists involved for seven years with the gestation and delivery of this potent symbol of GM ambition. It tells the inside story of the life and times of a small start-up company trying to convert its scientific skills and business acumen into launching a world-beating product. We learn in fascinating detail how the company's emphasis changed from producing herbicide resistant cotton to developing a better fresh tomato. In doing so, they had to combine the caution of research scientists with the daring of commercial staff who were predicting the future expansion of sales of a product before it had even been produced and tested. Clashes of personality were frequent. The author provides an excellent description of these tensions within a company continually dependent on raising additional funds to meet financial targets which were repeatedly missed; staff morale oscillated with each round of expansions, layoffs and restructuring.
We learn how competition between the teams of molecular biologists working on the details of tomato fruit ripening in various other university labs led to battles over obtaining the patent rights so necessary to protect new products. The author then leads us skilfully through the regulatory debates about kanamycin resistance, toxicology results from rat feeding trials, and the exaggerated accuracy of Agrobacterium-based transformation. As the product drew closer to market, even Vice President Dan Quail was involved in an attempt to remove the regulatory 'logjam' that was impeding progress.
Subsequently, prior to launch day, the name of a character in the Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter had suggested the label 'MacGregor' that was to became the brand name for the Flavr Savr premium fresh tomato. Despite the dramatically successful launch in 1994, the commercial performance was very poor and by 1996 problems of inconsistent supplies and uncertain quality control brought about the inexorable decline of Calgene's fortunes (like all other companies that had tested the premium tomato market previously). They were not helped by other 'events'. For example, the Unabomber used the Calgene return address on his diatribe on the perils of modern technology mailed to the New York Times. Finally, after an initial investment in 1996 during its biotech buying spree, Monsanto completed the purchase of Calgene in 1997. Following this purchase the Flavr Savr tomato was "de-emphasised", and so after expenditure of over $150 million, the project failed.
Is there a moral to this story? The author herself, with her self-proclaimed "contrariness" has clearly become more sceptical over the years and now argues in favour of greater rigour and more transparency in the regulatory process for GM products. It seems doubtful, however, whether such changes would have affected the outcome of this particular saga.
Professor Jim Dunwell
School of Plant Sciences
The University of Reading Whiteknights
PO Box 221
Reading RG6 6AS
The United Kingdom