Updated 7 months ago
Florida Trend: Earlier in your career, why did you decide to work for private industry instead of going into academia?
Harry Klee: I had an academic offer, and I turned it down to go to Monsanto. It was such an exciting opportunity that I couldn’t say no. I had a fairly significant role in helping to develop all those biotech products. The biggest one was Roundup Ready. The herbicide-resistant crops that are now used widely. Despite all the vociferous complaints about GMOs, the reality is that product had a huge positive environmental impact. Farmers can use less herbicide to effectively control weeds. They have one herbicide that kills all the weeds and they can do one spraying after planting the crop. Before they would spray before planting and then go back and spray again with different herbicides afterward. Some of those herbicides were not as environmentally-friendly as Roundup.
FT: What are some misconceptions people have about farming?
HK: The problem is that the average consumer doesn’t know where their food comes from. They don’t know what it takes to produce food. They don’t know how much they have to work to get a crop that survives all the challenges, especially in Florida. To grow and even have an ag industry in Florida requires a lot of work and a lot of chemistry. The only thing we have going for Florida is it doesn’t freeze in winter. Otherwise, the soil isn’t very good. It rains a lot and it causes disease pressure. There are a lot of things that make farming in Florida very difficult.
FT: Why study tomatoes?
HK: When I came to Florida, I realized that the problem is tomatoes don’t taste very good. Why don’t they? Let’s solve the real problem, which is taste, rather than trying to do it indirectly with the way we manipulate. Let’s understand what is flavor and understand how to fix it. And make the commercial tomatoes taste like they did 100 years ago. Flavor is really complicated. There is a lot that contributes to flavor. When you have something that is that complex, the breeders have difficulty with it. What has happened with it is that the customer of the breeder is the grower, not the consumer. I think that is really at the heart of the matter. The breeder gives what his customer wants, which is long shelf life, a big, round firm fruit and lots of them. The growers in Florida are paid based on yield and not on quality.
FT: How did you go about figuring out what the perfect tomato tastes like?
HK: What we’ve tried to set out to do is to bring the consumer back into the equation, to start with them and say, ‘What does the consumer like?’ That is where the collaboration has really flourished. We give people loads of tomatoes, some good, some bad, some great. They eat and rate on Linda’s (Bartoshuk) scaling methods. They tell us what they think, and we grind them up and figure out what is in them with regard to flavor and taste.
FT: Is the better-tasting tomato you are creating genetically modified?
HK: No. This is pure plant breeding. Not GMOs. All we are doing is going back and in many ways just recovering stuff that was lost from plants 100 years ago.
FT: So has your experiment worked? Have you developed a good-tasting breed that is also inexpensive?
HK: You still have to deal with a commercial producer who still has to grow these things and make money at it. These first lines we released probably don’t have the yield and commercial properties the growers would like.
With commercial growers we have this constraint. But there are a couple of other ways we can go about this. One is the first variety we targeted are meant for home gardeners. These heirloom varieties. The reason they are called heirloom is because people stopped growing them. They are susceptible to diseases. They fall into neglect. The reality is the heirlooms are really hard to grow.
What we’ve done actually is to produce hybrids. We make a cross between a very vigorous disease-resistant modern high-yielding variety and the very best tasting of the heirlooms. When you make that cross between the two, you get the best of both worlds. A plant that is much more fruit, much healthier but still taste great.
FT: What are the names of these new tomato breeds?
HK: The first two are Garden Gem and Garden Treasure. Right now the university releases the varieties and they put out a call to seed companies as to whether they want to go ahead and pick them up and have it be their product and put it in their catalog. They were released officially at end of last year. Probably 10 or 12 different seed companies will be growing them out this spring and summer.