Can the Simple Tomato End Hunger Through the World (And in Space)?
Centuries ago, well before Europeans discovered the New World, tomatoes thrived in the Andes of western South America. Indigenous communities in the region cultivated these tomatoes and eventually introduced the plant to Central America and Mexico. Upon the arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century, they encountered the indigenous people cultivating a food crop known as “tomatl” in the native language.
The explorers transported tomato seeds from Mexico to Spain, initiating the plant’s spread to Italy by the mid-1500s, where it became integrated into regional cuisine. Despite being cultivated throughout Europe in the subsequent decades, tomatoes were primarily grown as ornamental plants.
Today, in the realm of vegetables cultivated for canning, freezing, drying, or pickling, tomatoes currently represent 60% of the total weight produced and nearly half of the dollar value, a significant proportion. This prevalence is not surprising, given the diverse ways in which tomatoes are offered at LA Foods, including canned whole, crushed Italian, juice, ketchup, paste, purée, and sauce.
Due to their vulnerability to frost, tomatoes are primarily grown in California and Florida. Planting occurs from late January through June, with harvests taking place from June to October. However, recent weather events have affected tomato crops and prices.
The majority of tomatoes for processing are produced in California, where heavy winter storms in early 2023 caused flooding in parts of the Central Valley, leaving fields wet and muddy into spring. Despite planting delays and fall harvest disruptions, the availability of sub-surface water and a pent-up demand for tomato products led to high yields, prices, and revenues for many processing producers.
Whether the cycle of drought and abundant rains will continue, another interesting factor has emerged that could have a long-term impact on the demand for processed tomatoes.
It could turn out that tomatoes may be the sustainable answer to tackling world hunger. In a paper published last September in the journal Sustainable Food Technology, scientists from Japan proposed that Euglena gracilis, an edible microalgae with high nutritional and functional content, could easily and quickly be cultivated in tomato juice.
The paper, titled “Method for growing edible Euglena gracilis in an inexpensive medium with tomato juice to a high cell density equivalent to the density in KH medium” proposes an inexpensive technology for producing a form of Euglena gracilis that can be consumed daily as a nutrient source.
The idea is to create a simple and inexpensive culture medium that would eliminate the costs associated with conventional production processes and help end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.
Mass cultivation of Euglena gracilis in recent years has already led to its use commercially as a raw material for functional foods, cosmetics, and biofuels. In terms of human nutritional sources, E. gracilis is known to store amino acids, vitamins, lipids, and other nutrients suitable for human consumption.
Assistant Professor Kyohei Yamashita of Tokyo University of Science (TUS) who was part of the research team, has hopes for the continued development of this research.
“Euglena is rich in nutrients and functional ingredients, so it is possible to easily fortify foods by converting some of the nutrients in the food into Euglena. Being simple and economically feasible, we expect this method to be useful for carbon-neutral and sustainable food production,” he said. “It could also contribute to the achievement of sustainable development goals related to food and hunger and has the potential to contribute as a food production technology in space exploration.”
From the Andes Mountains to Mars and beyond, the story of the tomato’s journey continues to be a delicious read.