Rachel Marshall writes about ‘Tomatoes for Tomorrow’.

Whilst at first sight the Tomatoes for Tomorrow project might not appear to be a local story, this Lancaster University collaboration in Mexico has global implications—including for tomatoes growing in our own backyards. It is a hopeful story of seed-saving, knowledge sharing and community building at a point when it was almost too late to save Mexico’s agrodiversity and cultural heritage linked to tomatoes. It highlights how intensive agricultural systems, loss of local knowledge and control over our food system are playing out around the world.

Tomatoes are one of the world’s largest horticultural crops, and a staple ingredient globally. While tomatoes are now found all over the world, Mexico is the global centre of their domestication. Hundreds of ancestral varieties have been developed over >1300 years, across a range of climatic conditions, and linked to different farming traditions. However, this tomato agrodiversity is threatened. A small number of commercial varieties now dominate markets, while traditional varieties are being rapidly lost and forgotten. Meanwhile, climate change is presenting new threats to tomato production particularly where agrodiversity has been lost.

Gabriela Toledo-Ortiz,  a lecturer in Plant Science at Lancaster Environment Centre commented: “Most of these ancestral tomatoes have not been formally documented, protected in collections, or actively researched. Just as these genetic resources become more important globally, Mexico’s tomato diversity and farmer traditional knowledge are being rapidly lost. We want to do what we can to prevent that from happening and ensure that the small farming communities benefit from sharing, consuming and sustainably using these resources that are the past and the future of the cultivar.”happening and ensure that the small farming communities benefit from sharing, consuming and sustainably using these resources that are the past and the future of the cultivar.”

The Tomatoes for Tomorrow is made up of a group of plant scientists, farmers, agronomists, conservationists, chefs and tomato enthusiasts in Mexico and the United Kingdom (including researchers from Lancaster University and University of Leeds funded by N8 AgriFood). The team is building a network of researchers, farmers, chefs and citizens working to identify, protect, utilise, promote and research Mexico’s threatened tomato agrodiversity.

This includes efforts to:

  • Understand Mexico’s tomato agrodiversity and traditional knowledge before it is lost.
  • Protect tomato agrodiversity, both in seed collections and on the farms where these varieties have been developed.
  • Build new livelihood opportunities for small-scale farmers who are protecting tomato agrodiversity.
  • Explore the potential of tomato agrodiversity for developing higher-nutrition, lower-input and climate resilient varieties.
  • Grow awareness and pride for Mexico’s tomato agrodiversity, as part of local, national and global heritage.

As the project develops, the team is using a rights-based approach, to ensure that any future seed-collecting and use protects the needs, rights and preferences of the farmers and people who have bred and protected this agricultural heritage. It is setting an important example for how international research of global significance must be designed with and for the benefit of farmers.

To learn more join Gabriela at the Seeds of Resilience session at the Lancaster Health Festival on Sunday 20th September 2020 19:00–20:30

Check out the project website and listen to this podcast.

You can also contact Gabriela Toledo-Ortiz at: g.toledo-ortiz@lancaster.ac.uk

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