Mad Scientist And The Bionic Tomato Painting

Description (Brief)
This oil painting on paper by Talchi "Terry" Miura depicts a man in a white lab coat flipping a switch to send a stream of electricity into a giant tomato with bolts and stitches.
The use of a tomato in the painting likely refers to the Flavr Savr, the first genetically engineered food to become widely available in the United States. In the mid-1980s, scientists at the California biotech company Calgene altered tomatoes, interfering with their production of an enzyme that causes softening. At the time, growers picked mass-market tomatoes while still green. Later they induced the produce to ripen by spraying it with ethylene gas. Firm, green tomatoes transported well but lacked “vine-ripened” flavor. Calgene marketed the Flavr Savr as a fruit picked at the peak of ripeness that could remain firm through travel to grocery store shelves
.
Although some groups voiced concerns, the Flavr Savr was generally well received despite costing twice the price of a regular tomato. In the years leading up to its release in May 1994, Calgene openly publicized its research and asked the FDA to release a statement about the tomato’s safety. Open communication and the company’s willingness to label the Flavr Savr as genetically modified seems to have contributed to the Flavr Savr’s acceptance and success.
Regardless of its generally positive reception, the tomato was only available for three years. Calgene, a small biotech company, stumbled when faced with the realities of large-scale commercial horticulture. By 1997 Calgene rival Monsanto had purchased a large portion of the company and pulled the Flavr Savr from the market.
Miura’s painting, with its Frankenstein’s monster of a tomato, signals the growing fears over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the years to come. Some GMOs, particularly those released by Monsanto, were quite commercially successful. Nevertheless, refusal by companies to label GMOs has inspired public distrust of these products. The term “Frankenfood,” coined in the early 1980s, was increasingly used to negatively refer to GMO products from the mid-1990s through the early 2000s.
Sources:
Dan Charles, “The Tomato That Ate Calgene” in Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and The Future of Food (Cambridge: Basic Books, 2002): 126–48.
Michael Winerip, “You Call That A Tomato?” New York Times, June 24, 2013, accessed October 9, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/24/booming/you-call-that-a-tomato.html.
Location
Currently not on view
Object Name
painting
date made
before 1994
Physical Description
oil paint (overall material)
paper (overall material)
Measurements
overall: 45.7 cm x 34.5 cm; 18 in x 13 9/16 in
ID Number
1994.3002.01
nonaccession number
1994.3002
catalog number
1994.3002.01
subject
Agriculture
Science & Mathematics
Biotechnology and Genetics
See more items in
Medicine and Science: Biological Sciences
Biotechnology and Genetics
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Gift of Talchi Miura

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