As some of you know, I do all my grocery shopping via Peapod, a “grocery store” that functions entirely on deliveries. Instead of building stores that consumers have to go to, with appropriate climate and decor and aisles for food, Peapod just maintains giant warehouses of food and employs packers to put together users’ online orders for delivery the next day. I love everything about Peapod, but this post isn’t about Peapod. That’s just the lead-in to what I’m really here to talk about.
So, I was shopping on Peapod’s website today, since Thursday is the day when all the sales turn over for the next week and I love sales. I noticed that they added a new item called the Kumato® tomato. I was immediately drawn to it, because I am (now) a tomato enthusiast who is disgusted by mealy, tasteless grocery store tomatoes that I have recently learned are not only disgusting and tasteless, but also farmed in Florida under abusive conditions—and sometimes actual slavery. But the Kumato® tomato—at least those that are available to us here in the United States—was grown in greenhouses in Canada and developed in Belgium. The description that you can find online basically claims it’s a tomato that “ripens from the inside out,” is sweeter than your typical grocery store tomato, but maintains its firmness and ship-ability so that it can still be sold in a standard grocery store.
I was intrigued, but probably not for the reasons you think (unless you know me well, in which case, it’s definitely for the reasons you think). As someone who grows many varieties of open pollinated, heirloom tomatoes every summer and has spent way too much time researching tomato biology over the last three years, I am no certified expert on tomatoes, but I am certainly well educated (if I must say so myself). I take the snobbish—if not completely valid—stance that grocery store tomatoes can never measure up in flavor to a home-grown or farmer’s market heirloom tomato, not just because of the way they are grown, but also because of the varieties offered. Grocery store tomatoes are typically the most tasteless varieties (because those are the ones that will grow under the most duress, which is how they grow them in Florida for the commercial tomato industry), but they are also picked green and then gassed in a warehouse in order to become red. Basically, when you’re buying a grocery store tomato, you’re buying the most shitty tomato variety they could find that is not even actually ripe. And you probably contributed to modern-day slavery too by buying it, but that’s another post entirely.
So, this is why I was interested in the Kumato®—because heirloom tomato growers (whether they are home gardeners or farmer’s market sellers) can’t grow in the winter, so what are you supposed to do if you want a tomato in the winter for some tacos or to make an Italian red sauce? At this point, I’m pretty much willing to consider anything I can find that tastes better than the crap the grocery stores normally offer you and doesn’t contribute to Floridian slavery, so the Kumato® had some new and intriguing things to offer. Oh, and it’s also a black variety, which is nearly unheard of in the mass market.
When you read the Kumato®’s Wikipedia page, there are several interesting claims:
Unlike other tomato varieties, seeds cannot be purchased by the general public. Syngenta has stated that they will never make Kumato seeds available to the general public as the Kumato tomato is grown under a concept known as a club variety, whereby Syngenta sells seeds only to licensed growers that go through a rigorous selection process, and participation is by invitation only. Syngenta maintains ownership of the variety throughout the entire value chain from breeding to marketing, whereby selected growers must agree to follow specified cultivation protocols, and in addition pay a flat license fee per acre of greenhouse, the cost of the seed, in addition to royalties based on the volume of tomatoes produced. Typically Syngenta licenses only one large vertically integrated greenhouse producer per country that has well established relationships with grocery chains.
That said, anyone can retrieve seeds from a Kumato and grow plants for private use.
I’ve done some research into the Kumato® since I learned about it earlier today, and this is what I’ve learned.
First of all, the Kumato® that is marketed as a commercial variety is not the same as a similar variety, also referred to as the Kumato, that is available as an heirloom variety to home growers. As I suspected, the Kumato® is a patented, hybrid variety, which itself means several things. Being patented means that the company that developed it can indeed retain all the rights to its growth, and it means the last line in the Wikipedia page is factually incorrect. (I know: a Wikipedia page is factually incorrect? Stop the presses!) Not all hybrid tomato varieties are patented, and not all hybrid varieties are created by evil GMO corporations, so don’t go thinking that the hyrbid-ness makes the Kumato® evil. The reason it makes sense that it’s a hybrid is because hybrid varieties are usually genetically stronger, but generally unstable, than their open pollinated heirloom brethren. You need some of that gene strength when you’re going to grow and store tomatoes for commercial distribution, and every tomato you buy in a grocery store is a hybrid for this reason.
However, a hybrid means that the seeds are not viable. Typically if you try to save the seeds from a hybrid tomato and then plant them, the fruits that come out of your resulting plant won’t be similar to the fruit they came from at all, and may not even represent either parent of that tomato. Basically, if you manage to produce fruits at all from the seed of a hybrid tomato, they are freakish, unpredictable fruits—and it’s possible they may not even be edible, depending on what’s going on with the tomato’s genetics. So, because the Kumato® is a patented, hybrid variety of tomato, there is virtually no way that a home gardener would be able to save seed and grow their own patented Kumato® plants for private use. It’s simply not possible biologically.
There are other annoying things about how the Kumato® is marketed, and how it’s parroted among foodie blogs. (Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think the average person knows that much about tomatoes and so I don’t blame them for parroting company information. I just think it’s annoying to read the same misinformation over and over again.) For example, there is the claim that they “ripen inside out,” which is the company’s own explanation for why the skin is a dark brownish, sort-of-green, sort-of-reddish color. That is just plain craziness—there are many “black” varieties of tomatoes that have the same coloring (one of my favorites being the Black Krim, which you may remember that I have grown for several seasons now). The tomatoes don’t “ripen from the inside out” and other tomatoes don’t ripen from the outside in—that’s just the color they are, and that’s what they look like when ripe.
There’s also the claim that they are sweeter than “normal tomatoes” because of a higher fructose content, leading the reader to believe that this is some kind of super-tomato. Again, most tomatoes actually have higher fructose content than your average grocery store tomato—almost anyone with any familiarity with tomatoes would argue that grocery store tomatoes have a significantly lower than average fructose content, so it’s probable that the Kumato® has an average fructose content for a black-variety tomato hybrid. This doesn’t make them weird or even unique; it just makes them fairly normal while your average pinkish-reddish grocery store tomato is the one that is the freak.
Finally, there is the claim that the Kumato® is a “gourmet variety.” This is slightly more nuanced for me; I don’t really think it’s “gourmet” in the sense that it’s better than all tomatoes you can find, but it’s certainly better than what you can buy from a store in the dead of winter in North America. So, on one hand, it’s not better than what you could grow at home (especially since you can save seed from what you grow at home; think of those as “open source” tomatoes), but it’s probably significantly better than what you would normally get from a grocery store in terms of flavor.
So, what do I actually think of the Kumato®? I haven’t tasted them yet, but I added them to my list on Peapod for delivery this weekend. I have high hopes for a better-tasting tomato that I can have delivered in the middle of winter from a traditional grocery store that actually tastes like something and wasn’t grown and picked with shady slave labor. If it tastes even half as good as one of my summer heirlooms, I’ll consider it a win. I also plan to save seed and grow at least one this summer to see how the freaky hybrid children turn out, though I’m not counting on any real Kumato®s coming out of it.
So that’s your tomato rant for today, Thursday, January 19, 2012. This post has not been copy edited in any way whatsoever.