Washington Insider -- Monday

Developing Sweeter Tomatoes

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

Iowa Supreme Court Issues Ruling In Des Moines Water Works Case

In a case with potential implications for other farm states, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that state law immunizes county drainage districts from legal claims sought by the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW), another government entity.

The drainage districts were instituted in Iowa to allow wetlands to be turned into productive farmland by moving water off of fields. DMMW, which provides drinking water to about half a million people, sued the drainage districts of Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties, claiming they allowed nitrates from agricultural lands to get into the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers.

DMWW is required to meet certain federal water-quality standards, including a maximum level of nitrates. Relying on 100 years of Iowa law, the state high court ruled that the drainage districts have "a limited, targeted role -- to facilitate the drainage of farmland in order to make it more productive" -- and are, therefore, immune from damages claims and from injunctive relief claims other than ones to compel it to perform a statutory duty.

The court's decision, however, did not deal with claims DMWW has brought under the federal Clean Water Act or the state's water pollution control law. Those are being considered by the US District Court for the Northern District of Iowa.

Ross Slams Russia for US Seafood Import Ban

Russia "undoubtedly and unfairly" blocked U.S. seafood imports in response to U.S. sanctions, Commerce Secretary nominee Wilbur Ross said in response to a written question by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, in a post-hearing questionnaire.

"We need to find a way to deal with it," Ross argued. His response came after a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, which has backed his nomination.

In the question, Sullivan estimated that the embargo has cost the U.S. more than $200 million in export value in the 2.5 years it has been in place. Over the same period, the U.S. has imported around $1 billion in seafood from Russia, he noted.

Prior to the ban, Russia was a growing market for U.S. fish and seafood exports, according to a USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) report. U.S. fish and seafood exports to Russia reached a record $83 million in 2013, making Russia the eighth largest export market for US fish and seafood that year.

Meanwhile, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., questioned Ross on the U.S.-Canada softwood lumber dispute. In his response, Ross noted he favored "quotas to offset stumpage subsidies" in Canada, and said he would work to ensure that U.S. companies can compete in international markets.

Washington Insider: Developing Sweeter Tomatoes

Well, the Trump Administration's new Secretary of Agriculture, Governor Sonny Perdue, hasn't even been confirmed yet and swirling politics in Washington have already dredged up new versions of old fights—with new ones waiting in the wings. For example, there was talk last week about resurrecting the mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) battle that Mexico and Canada won against the United States recently. And, of course, the new Secretary must set about producing a GMO label that pleases groups that are exceedingly hard to please about such matters.

In addition, you might have been surprised to find a generally approving article in the New York Times last week that described how scientists are working to find a better tasting tomato, following efforts over the decades that drained the taste out of supermarket tomatoes.

The star of the article is Harry J. Klee, a professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida. The Times says he thinks he can put the taste back "within a couple of years." He is cited in this week's issue of the journal Science where Dr. Klee and his colleagues describe flavor chemicals that are deficient in most modern varieties of tomatoes.

In addition, they have located genes that produce these chemicals and identified heirloom and wild varieties of tomatoes that possess better versions.

Then it tells about work underway to "breed a hybrid that restores much of the flavor yet retains the traits — large size, sturdy enough for shipping — that growers need to succeed. "Now we know exactly what needs to be done to make it right," Dr. Klee said. "We just have to turn the crank."

Typical breeding research story, you say. However, this time researchers claim to be using only "traditional breeding" to create the better tasting tomato, even though genetic engineering would have been much quicker. "I don't want people to not eat a great-tasting tomato because they're scared of it," Dr. Klee said.

This work has taken years. The researchers meticulously measured the chemical makeup in different varieties and sequenced the full genome of nearly 400 varieties, including modern, heirloom, wild. Taste panels weighed in on which varieties were delicious and which were not.

The Klee team says that the chemistry of tomato flavor has three primary components: sugars, acids and what are known as volatile chemicals, the flavor compounds that waft into the air carrying the fruit's aroma.

In general, people like sweeter fruit, but that is the hardest aspect to improve, because growers, paid by the pound, prefer larger fruit, and a tomato plant can only produce only so much sugar through photosynthesis. But the interplay of other chemicals, often in trace quantities, is also crucial. Some enhance sweetness. Others add nuance to the flavor.

"Think of the tomato flavor as a symphony with lots of notes," Dr. Klee said. "Over the last 50 years, they've removed one instrument at a time."

While any single change did not destroy the flavor, the cumulative effect has been blandness. The researchers identified 26 genes involved in producing flavorful volatiles. Modern tomato varieties had versions of the genes that produced smaller amounts of the volatiles.

Because the tomato plants produce small quantities of these volatiles, restoring the good versions of the genes should not greatly affect the other traits that growers demand. For home gardeners, there is already a version available, a cross between the best-tasting heirlooms and a modern variety. In exchange for a donation of $10 or more, Dr. Klee's laboratory will send a packet of seeds.

However, the Times suggests that "maybe it's too late."

In the tasting panels, there were noticeable differences in preferences: between men and women, between foodies and non-foodies and, perhaps most interesting, between older people and younger people. He recalled one of the students working in his laboratory picking out the supermarket tomato as her favorite in one of the taste tests.

"That bothers me a lot," Dr. Klee said. "Have we trained a whole generation that doesn't know what a good tomato is?"

So, the Klee group may not be out or the woods just yet. It may be too sanguine to assume that just because Dr. Klee thinks his hybrids will be safe from attacks from foodies, consumers may still harbor suspicions on the grounds that the new tomato is too close to being a GMO because of its reliance on genetic analysis—or something. For example, the anti-GMO wars often rest on anti-corporate fears to criticize products such as Golden Rice that can provide vitamins to help night blindness sufferers. Thus, while attention to consumer interests in "designer plants" is a step forward, it should be watched closely by producers as Dr. Klee's work continues, Washington Insider believes.

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