Tomato | South America (500 BC)

1502495-6405352 - Gaedtke Elijah - May 4, 2016 130 PM - EGaedtke_image

Tomato Naturalis by Naturalis Biodiversity Center, BY-SA 3.0 at

By Eli Gaedtke

There are many objects that could be representative of the Anthropocene, and it is very likely that a huge number of objects could combine to show the full extent of human change on our planet.  Many of the changes that humans have made since they have evolved tend to have an indirect, but powerful forcing on the flora and fauna of Earth.  However, we as a species, have also had some extreme direct effects and changes on the biota as well.  An important change that we often overlook is the artificial selection and genetic modification of the species that affect our global marketplace, for this reason, I have chosen the tomato as a representative object for the Anthropocene.  The Roma, the Heirloom, the Cherry, the Kumato; these are some of the most popular types of tomatoes consumed by people around the world.  But the reality that people do not see, is that the accepted number of tomato species worldwide is greater than 10,000; however, all of these varieties derived from one species of wild tomato that grew in the Andean foothills of South America.1  These drastic changes via the selective breeding of tomatoes over hundreds of years, highlight the changes that humans have made to the flora and fauna of Earth, and present a viable argument that we are currently living in the Anthropocene.

It is likely that Hernán Cortés, the Spanish Conquistador, was the first European to discover the tomato and bring it back to Europe.2  However, the plant had already been cultivated by many native civilizations in Mesoamerica for hundreds of years before the Spanish had arrived on their land.  The first time the tomato was seen in European literature was in 1544 and was described as a “pomi d’oro” or “golden apple”.3  It was more than a century later that the tomato became a popular food item in Europe.  There were many reasons accredited to why it took so long before it was consumed, and the reasons are as following: the tomato is a close relative of belladonna or “deadly nightshade”, it was used as an ornament for its golden yellow color, and the short stature of the plant made it associated with a lower-class food.4  In the late 17th century, people in Europe finally dissociated tomatoes with their cousin, the deadly nightshade. When the tomato was demanded as food rather than an ornament, it began to diversify into the some of the many varieties that we know today.

The interaction that humans have had with the tomato, since Cortés brought them back to Europe, is a great representation of the relationship of man and nature in the Anthropocene.  This object presents many of the themes that are associated with the Anthropocene.  It all starts with the Colombian Exchange, which is a very accepted starting date range for the Anthropocene because of the globalization of goods, and the drastic changes to the landscape and atmosphere that followed the global movement.  As previously stated, the tomato was one of the many products that was a part of the Colombian Exchange, as it moved from Peru to Spain, and then throughout Europe and the rest of the world.  The tomato also represents ideas of eurocentrism: the idea that something originated or is of European descent.  It is commonly thought of as an Italian food, but in reality it is native to South America and had been grown there for agriculture much earlier than in Italy.2

The tomato represents a timeless history of humankind’s mastery over nature, as we consistently breed and domesticate wild species into a product that can be produced and sold on the market.  As most of the domesticated products we know and purchase on the market, like beef or corn, the tomato was originally diversified into desirable goods by the process of selective breeding, or artificial selection.  The process of artificial selection is basically forcing two plants that have produced the most desirable fruits to interbreed and then consistently produce the desired type of fruit of the plant.  This happens over and over again, isolating the traits that people like, and producing the many varieties of tomatoes that we can buy from the grocery stores. Then, in 1994, the first genetically modified organism, or GMO, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration to be sold on the market: the Flavr Savr tomato.5  The Flavr Savr, was modified to have a longer lasting shelf life, therefore making it a commodity as the sole purpose of the modification was to distribute it in the global marketplace.  After 1994, tomatoes were genetically changed to resist destruction during growth, maximize the growth, and remain on the market longer. Other common tomatoes, like the Roma tomato, are genetically modified to resist common diseases that tomato plants are susceptible to.  We even discovered a way to cross tomato and potato plants, close members of the same genus, into one plant that produces tomatoes above ground, and potatoes underground.  I think this is a relevant object because as of 2013, the tomato was the eighth most globally produced agricultural product according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.6 These mastered commodities are an important symbol for the Anthropocene and the changes that humans have had on nature since the Colombian trade began in the late 15th century.

Today, the world record tomato is 3.8 kilograms, while the average mass of the native tomato in South America is just 11 grams. That means that in approximately 500 years, the mass of the tomato has increased more than 346 times its original mass.  These massive changes are due to human interaction and exploitation of nature.  Artificial selection and modern genetic modification are important parts of the Anthropocene, as we can globally see the diversification and interrelatedness of species such as the tomato. Although domestication and the selective breeding of flora and fauna has been occurring for tens of thousands of years, the tomato represents the massive acceleration of the Anthropocentric modifications after the Colombian Exchange, as the sheer number of species and the physiology of tomatoes expanded.

By Naturalis – Tomato project Naturalis Biodiversity Center, CC BY-SA 3.0,


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Mattioli, Pietro. “Di Pedacio Dioscoride Anazarbeo Libri cinque Della historia, et materia medicinale tradotti in lingua volgare italiana da M. Pietro Andrea Matthiolo Sanese Medico, con amplissimi discorsi, et comenti, et dottissime annotationi, et censure del medesimo interprete” 1544.

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Sim, Sung-Chur, Allen Van Deynze, Kevin Stoffel, David S. Douches, Daniel Zarka, Martin W. Ganal, Roger T. Chetelat, Samuel F. Hutotn, John W. Scott, Randolph G. Gardner, Dilip R. Panthee, Martha Mutschler, James R. Myers, and David M. Francis. “High-Density SNP Genotyping of Tomato (Solanum Lycopersicum L.) Reveals Patterns of Genetic Variation Due to Breeding.” PLoS ONE. 2012. Accessed April 17, 2016.