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Prodigio: A New Tomato in Costa Rica

Q COSTA RICA, by Mitzi Stark. There’s good news from the tomato world. Costa Rica now has its very own variety named Prodigio. What does this mean for producers, the national economy and us, the consumers?

Tomatoes are the most popular food product in Costa Rica as well as in many other countries. We eat them mostly in salads but also in sandwiches and vegetable plates. But, like all agricultural products, they are subject to supply and demand which controls the prices, and to the whims of nature, meaning weather and bacteria in the soil or air. Tomatoes are rather delicate.

Photo by Mitsi Stark

Prodigio is a hybrid variety developed at the University of Costa Rica’s  UCR) Fabio Baudrit Moreno Experimental Station in La Garita de Alajuela. And no, it is not artificially genetically modified. It was a laborious and often frustrating task of selecting parent plants and seeds and did not come about over night. It took more than twelve years to develop into the super size fruit on plants that range up to ten feet tall and call to mind Jack and the beanstalk.

But there’s more to Prodigio than super size. The regular tomatoes that we find in the market are grown from imported seeds and each year new seeds must be ordered. The plants and fruit are subject to a bacterial disease Ralstonia Solanacearum, found in the soil and water which affects the plants and fruit. And that’s just one of the diseases that attack the plants. This means a very short growing period and a huge loss in rotting and damaged fruit.

Prodigio stays healthy and produces up to a year, meaning more even distribution for consumers and better incomes for producers. Crops more than double the regular harvest.

The process began in 1994 when plant engineers Carlos Echandi and Marco Moreira made a search for seeds from tropical areas that resisted diseases and had commercial potential. They found several strains through the Vegetable Research Development Center in Taiwan, and others at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Then the testing began working with combinations to find one that resists diseases and produces a uniform product over a longer period of time. The new variety had to be productive in rain, wind and sun. Both men received advanced degrees from the University of Iowa in the United States.

After finding five varieties that met their criteria the researchers crossed them to produce hybrids and from the twenty results they chose four. These were then tested to see if the plants and fruit are consistent through ten generations. From these varieties the Prodigio was chosen. Then came field tests. Tomato farmers in different parts of Costa Rica planted one section of their plots with the common variety and one section in Prodigio.

Photo by Mitsi Stark

Prodigio, with hearty stalks and loaded with baseball size tomatoes, made the regular tomato plants look stunted.

At the Fabio Baudrit greenhouse the plants are grown for tomatoes and seeds and further study. The plants are vigorous with stalks thumb thick and wired to the ceiling. Tomatoes are “big enough for hamburgers,” explained Echandi. Walking into the tomato field is like entering a forest.

The new plant gained attention and support from the European Union, the National Institute for Innovation and Exchange of Agricultural Technology, the Interamerican Institute for Agricultural Cooperation and other leading organizations.

Photo by Mitsi Stark

Research continues, says Echandi. All plants are subject to bacteria and viruses and weather conditions. “We need to be sure that Prodigio meets all criteria in the future.”

Prodigio is already in production and the tomatoes are sold in farm markets and at the wholesale market in Barreal de Heredia. For producers there is also the added benefit that the experimental farm now sells seeds at a cost much lower than the imported ones. Production is still limited but is catching on. For its size, firmness and year round production this tomato will soon be on everyone’s plate.

For now seeds are sold in quantities of 1,000 and 3,000 a package and are not yet available for home gardens.