1.Doubts about "medicinal" GM tomato
2."Purple tomato can beat cancer"

NOTE: GM scientist Jonathan Jones of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the John Innes Centre was exultant on Twitter: "The GM tomato that could help reduce heart disease Terrific; a GM crop the Mail likes; purple tomatoes anyone?"

Research shows how stories reporting speculative GM solutions to intractable problems (e.g. GM allergy-free peanuts, GM grass to help hay fever sufferers) are uncritically published in all types of newspapers, even in newspapers which tend to be critical of GM (see Guy Cook's book "Genetically Modified Language").

But when you look behind the headlines it becomes clear just how speculative the claims for these GM plants are. Meanwhile there are not only often better solutions already available, but there are also non-GM health promoting foods rapidly emerging for those who like this approach.
1.Doubts about "medicinal" GM tomato
GM Education, 6 November 2012

*Claims about drug carrying genetically engineered tomatoes should be treated cautiously.

Researchers fed the GM tomatoes to mice as a small part of a Western-style high-fat, calorie-packed diet. The study has not been peer-reviewed or published in a scientific journal but its findings are being promoted as a way to "reduce global epidemic of heart disease".

Dr. Alan Fogelman, of the David Geffen School of Medicine in Los Angeles, told a meeting of the American Heart Association, that mice fed the GMOs displayed lower blood levels of inflammation, higher levels of good cholesterol and less signs of atherosclerotic plaques ("hardening of the arteries"), among other signs of improving cardiovascular health.

But Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a preventive cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City warned against hoping for too much from research into "medicinal foods."

What about healthy eating?

Reviewing the data for Healthday News she said “a mice trial like this cannot necessarily be extrapolated to the choices that human beings make, in terms of the foods that they eat." "Based on this trial alone in mice, "medicinal" genetically engineered foods are not the do-it-yourself pharmacies of the future."

“A smarter, old-fashioned choice would be simply to eat more healthily,” she added. "We know that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and multi-grains and low in fats, can also decrease the incidence of heart disease in humans,"

But that would be common sense and it doesn’t produce a product, a patent or intellectual property for sale.

In this case, the researchers genetically engineered tomatoes to produce 6F, a small peptide that mimics the action of ApoA-1, the chief protein in high density lipoprotein (HDL).

“Pharming”: few regulations and plenty of money

Dr Fogelman said, "To our knowledge this is the first example of a drug with these properties that has been produced in an edible plant and is biologically active when fed without any isolation or purification of the drug."

The agricultural production of pharmaceuticals in GM plants and animals is seen by the biotech industry as having massive business potential but by many environmentalists and animal welfare organisations as posing especially potent threats.

Despite citizen concerns about the production of drugs in uncontrolled environments and in animals, at present there are few, if any, regulatory or even ethical constraints and “pharming” looks like a license to print money.

Little wonder that, according to the Daily Mail, “Researchers hope to mass produce the GM tomato so it can be eaten around the world.”

Dr Fogelman is no stranger to cashing in on his research. Some years ago his private company (presumably something he runs during the evenings and days off from his University job) secured a $200 million dollar deal with Novartis for another application of peptides.
2."Purple tomato can beat cancer"

"Purple tomato can beat cancer" was the headline to a front-page story in the UK paper, the Daily Express [in 2008], which claimed that scientists at the John Innes Centre had genetically modified tomatoes with genes from a snapdragon plant to create "the ultimate healthy superfood."[1] According to the Express, the GM tomato, because of its increased antioxidants, could protect you against cancer, keep you slim, ward off diabetes and help you safeguard your eyesight. There was also enthusiastic coverage of the GM tomato on the BBC TV Horizon programme, the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, CNN, CBS, ABC, Reuters, and the UK tabloid and broadsheet daily and Sunday newspapers, amongst many other media outlets worldwide.

However, the UK's National Health Service (NHS) and Cancer Research UK (CRUK) both expressed strong reservations about the coverage of the story. According to an article in NHS Choices, reporting the views of the NHS Knowledge Service: “These claims are not actually based on benefits seen in humans, but rather from a small-scale study of mice that were given an extract of genetically modified tomatoes.” The NHS Knowledge Service also notes: “The small sample sizes used mean the results may have occurred by chance. Also until the tomato is tested in humans we cannot be sure that it will offer the same benefits, or that there will not be any unexpected harms.”[2] It concluded that without further research the claims that these GM tomatoes "can beat cancer" cannot be supported.

Cancer Research UK noted on its Science Update blog that "cancer is a complex disease that has lots of "causes"... the problem with a lot of the coverage of the super-tomato story is that it misses out on this complexity... there's also a big - and in our opinion unwarranted - assumption in some of the coverage. And that's the simple equation that antioxidants = good. There's a fair amount of evidence that some antioxidants in our foods can help prevent some kinds of cancer in some people. But the complexity of this evidence often gets translated in the media and in advertising to "antioxidants prevent disease."  And that's not what the science says."[3] [4]

It's worth noting that the dubious claims about purple tomatoes and cancer and the simplistic claims about antioxidants originated with the media work of the John Innes Centre ("Purple tomatoes may keep cancer at bay").[5] They were not made up by the press, even if they were reported uncritically. And the John Innes Centre also appears to have made no effort to play down or otherwise correct the claims that were made as a result of its media work. In fact, it seems to have welcomed and encouraged the PR impact from the coverage. For example, one of the researchers involved wrote an article for the Daily Mail which was headlined, "How my purple tomato could save your life".[6]

While the researchers may not have been responsible for the headline, far from seeking to rectify any of the hype or misinformation arising from their claims, the JIC clearly saw the coverage of the purple tomato story as an excellent means of promoting GM. A front page piece in a JIC house publication noted enthusiastically: "Our research has been reported very positively world wide... and has already had a societal impact in the UK, helping re-frame the GM debate."[7]

A good example of how the upbeat coverage was achieved is provided by Professor Cathie Martin's comment in the JIC's press release that, “The next step will be to take the preclinical data forward to human studies with volunteers to see if we can promote health through dietary preventive medicine strategies.”[8] But in a more measured press release from one of the JIC's collaboarators in the research - the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore - Marco Giorgio from the European Institute of Oncology warns, "We have to consider that in this study we have not taken into account any possible toxicity so I shall say we’re far from considering a human trial."[9]

It's also worth noting that significant levels of the antioxidant (anthocyanins) which led the GM tomato to be described as the "ultimate healthy superfood" already occur naturally in a whole range of common fruit and vegetables, including raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, bilberries, red cabbage, red onions, and aubergines (eggplants). The JIC researchers argue that tomatoes are consumed by people who might not normally consume these fruits and vegetables. It is questionable, however, whether people who are so conservative in their food choices would be attracted to a tomato with a highly unconventional appearance - one newspaper described it as looking "like a cross between an orange and a black pudding."[10] And Dr Lara Bennet of CRUK warns that in any case, “it is too early to say whether anthocyanins obtained through diet could help to reduce the risk of cancer”.[11]

But if anyone is convinced that only an anthocyanin-enriched purple tomato will help save them from cancer, researchers in Brazil have produced a non-GM variety[12], and researchers at Oregon State University already have a non-GM anthocyanin-enriched purple tomato available commercially.[13]


1. Victoria Fletcher, "Purple tomato can beat cancer", Daily Express, 27 October 2008, accessed 10 June 2009

2. "Purple tomatoes 'beat cancer'", NHS Choices, 27 October 2008, accessed 10 June 2009

3. Lisa Melton, "The antioxidant myth: A medical fairy tale", New Scientist, 5 August 2006, accessed 10 June 2009

4. "Purple tomatoes won't beat cancer", Cancer Research UK Science Update blog, undated, accessed 10 June 2009

5. "Purple tomatoes may keep cancer at bay", press release, John Innes Centre, October 2008, accessed 10 June 2009

6. Cathie Martin, "How my purple tomato could save your life", Daily Mail, 8 November 2008, accessed 10 June 2009

7. "Purple tomatoes - A GM research tool with worldwide appeal", Advances, John Innes Centre and Sainsbury Laboratory, Issue 12, Winter 2008-9, accessed 10 June 2009

8. "Purple tomatoes may keep cancer at bay", press release, John Innes Centre, October 2008, accessed 10 June 2009

9. "Purple tomatoes: The richness of antioxidants against tumors", press release, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, 12 November 2008, archived on the website of the Institute of Tropical Disease, Airlangga University, accessed 10 June 2009

10. Mike Philpott, "What the papers say", BBC News, 27 October 2008, accessed 10 June 2009

11. "Purple tomatoes 'beat cancer'", NHS Choices, 27 October 2008, accessed 10 June 2009

12. Purple tomatoes may fight cancer, other diseases, CBS News,3 December 2011, accessed 4 December 2011.

13. Purple tomato debuts as 'Indigo Rose', Oregon State University Extension Service, accessed 30 January 2012