Tomato Diplomacy in the Middle East

DOUG MAXWELL WILL NEVER FORGET HIS 63rd BIRTHDAY. He was in Cyprus, attending a meeting of Middle Eastern plant breeders who had come together to discuss a pernicious virus that was busily decimating the region’s tomato crop. At the end of an exhausting, day-long strategy session, he joined plant experts from Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and the Palestinian National Authority in a small celebration.

“At the party, members of the Lebanese and Israeli groups were all dancing together,” says Maxwell, an emeritus professor of plant pathology, of the 2004 meeting. “It set the stage for a really productive and exciting six years with this group.”

The researchers’ alliance has crossed more than just cultural and political borders. Since the start of the project, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the group has collaborated to develop new tomato varieties that resist the virus, known as Tomato yellow leaf curl virus, and customize them for each nation’s tastes. “The key was that each of these countries needed to develop germplasm specific for their local markets,” says Maxwell, who retired from CALS in 2001 to devote himself full-time to international projects. In Lebanon, for instance, people like to scoop out the insides of large tomatoes and fill them with salad, putting hefty tomatoes in high demand. Consumers in Jordan, on the other hand, prefer round tomatoes that weigh only a few ounces.

The scientists succeeded in creating pre-commercial hybrids for four of the countries before the grant’s completion earlier this year, and now it is up to local companies or national agricultural institutions to produce the seeds and market them to growers. The Middle Eastern scientists have secured additional funding to continue working together on similar tomato projects.

But tomatoes aren’t the only thing that has grown from the partnership. Maxwell says the effort opened doors for collaboration between countries that often are embroiled in fierce political disagreements. The team occasionally shuffled the location of meetings to avoid regional military conflicts, and in one case, fighting broke out between Lebanon and Israel right before the group was scheduled to convene. “I was wondering to myself, ‘What’s going to happen when these two groups get together?’” says Maxwell. “They gave each other big hugs. It was very touching to me.”

“That’s an equally important achievement as the scientific part,” he says. “(The project) was the mechanism that brought them together.”