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The FAO unravels the journey of the tomato: "from being a poisonous curiosity to a universal ingredient"

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations explains how tomatoes have become famous for their contribution to health, food security and livelihoods.


Cherry tomatoes.

Whether on pizza, topping salads, or mashed into sauces, tomatoes are a key ingredient in cuisines around the world. However, you may be surprised to learn that this has not always been the case.

The tomato is native to South America and, although the Aztecs already consumed it in Mesoamerica in the year 700 AD, it was not until the beginning of the 19th century that it became a popular ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine.

There are several theories about how it got to Europe. One of them is that it was introduced to the continent after the Spanish conquest. From Spain it passed to Italy thanks to the close relations between the ruling families of the time. Others believe that the tomato passed from Peru or Mexico to France.

Regardless of its origin, at first Europeans only considered the tomato as a decorative plant or a botanical curiosity. In fact, it was thought to be poisonous because, like other plants in the nightshade family, it contains solanine, a neurotoxin.

A few centuries later, tomatoes are commercially produced and consumed around the world, offering many benefits.

So what do tomatoes bring us today?

1) They are beneficial for health

Tomatoes are little food superheroes and their consumption as part of a balanced diet provides many health benefits. A single small, raw tomato is packed with nutrients and antioxidants. It can improve heart health thanks to its high levels of fiber and potassium, which help prevent cardiovascular disease. It contains several vitamins, such as vitamin C, which strengthens our immune system, and vitamin K, essential for strong bones.

2) There are varieties that can be grown and eaten throughout the year

Do you think all tomatoes are red? Well, you're wrong. Even the name of the tomato in Italian, “pomodoro” (golden apple), seems to suggest that the first tomatoes to be introduced to Italy…were yellow!

Tomatoes are an incredibly diverse fruit, there are over 10,000 different varieties. The agricultural system of the Huerta de Valencia (Spain) is proof of this. The FAO designated this place to become part of the Important Agricultural World Heritage Systems (SIPAM) due to the innovative nature of its historic irrigation system. The site incorporates some 6,000 smallholder farms growing at least 12 varieties of tomatoes. These varieties include platanitos, long yellow tomatoes, pearls, small cherry-type tomatoes, masclefs, green and red and heart-shaped, and Valencianos, large, ribbed tomatoes that are often used in salads.

3) They support livelihoods

Tomatoes are a key source of income for many people around the world. This is the case of farmers at another GIAHS site in Djebba El Olia (Tunisia). Thanks to the unique agroforestry system that exists here—in which tomatoes are interspersed with fig trees that provide the tomato plants with much-needed shelter and shade—farmers are able to produce these tomatoes despite the extreme heat.

These hardy Djebba tomatoes are harvested in July – a job traditionally done by women – and play a huge role in the local economy. After figs, they are the most consumed fruit locally and are sold in local and national markets, thus generating considerable income for the community.

Tomatoes are also an important means of subsistence for the indigenous Wixáritari of Mezquitic, a small town in the Mexican state of Jalisco. In this mountainous area, arable land and the resources to make it productive are scarce and a large part of the municipality's population lives in extreme poverty.

In 2016, however, the FAO provided the local community with a 200 square meter greenhouse, a drip irrigation system and a 5,000 cubic meter water tank. This has enabled the local community to earn a living in their own village rather than having to travel miles to work as day laborers on other farms.

Now the community has eight greenhouses filled with rows of not only tomatoes, but serrano and jalapeño peppers, cucumbers, cabbage, zucchini and green beans. They have enough food for their own consumption and to sell, which is a vital source of income.

4) Contribution to food security

Some particular types of tomato can survive even very high temperatures. This makes them essential for food security, as they provide income and are a nutritious food for farmers when many other crops fail. On this basis, FAO and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in collaboration with the Mauritius Food and Agricultural Research and Extension Institute, they have developed new tomato varieties even more resistant to heat using nuclear technology.

In Mauritius, tomatoes are grown on an area of ​​750 hectares and an average annual production of 11,000 tons is obtained. However, when temperatures exceed 30 degrees, as they often do, they can cause heat stress in tomato crops, reducing yields by up to 80%. This has a huge impact on farmers' livelihoods and community food security.

The FAO and IAEA have been helping Mauritius with the development of new heat-tolerant tomato varieties. In September 2019, three new high-yielding varieties were introduced and distributed to more than 100 farmers, and the demand continues to grow. This is just one example of how nuclear technology is being used to develop new crop varieties that are more resilient to climate change and meet the needs of growing populations.

In 2021 we celebrate the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables, but our efforts to reclaim these wonderful foods do not have to stop there. The tomato is a clear example of how much fruit and vegetables can do for us, from health and livelihood benefits to improvements in biodiversity and food security.

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