Tomatoes make up one of the three pillars of TOP vegetables, the other two being potatoes and onions. Tomatoes are one of the most widely cultivated and consumed vegetables in India. India produces 21-23 million tonnes of tomatoes annually and the average tomato production per hectare is 250-400 quintals. Despite these promising numbers, tomatoes have been all over the news this year because of their soaring tomato prices. Let’s find out what’s going on. But first, let’s get to know this humble vegetable.
Know your tomato
Tomatoes are used extensively in both North and South Indian cuisine. Yet, it first arrived in India in the 16th century. It was introduced by Portuguese spice merchants from South America. One of the earliest records of this vegetable can be seen in the 19th-century cookbook, Nuskha-i Niyamat Khaan (1801), under a recipe for tomato soup titled ‘Tarkeeb-i Tomata Sup Yaani Shorba Wilayati Baingan’ (wilayati baingan translates to ‘foreign eggplant’). Tomatoes have since come a long way.
Tomato cultivation and the Tomato Value Chain
Today tomatoes are cultivated throughout the year, but they are essentially a warm season crop. The ideal temperature for growing tomatoes is between 10-25°C with low to medium rainfall between 400-600mm. In the North, the kharif crop is transplanted in July and the rabi crop between October – November. However, the rabi crops don’t thrive well due to frost. Therefore, rabi tomatoes are usually supplied from the southern plains. In fact, in the South, tomatoes are a year long commodity since the first transplanting is done in December-January, the second between June-July and the third in September-October.
Even though most consumers only know ‘Nati’ (local tomatoes) and hybrid varieties, the truth is there are many varieties of tomatoes grown in India. Some of the advanced varieties are Pusa Ruby, Pusa- 120, Pusa shital, Pusa Gaurav, Pusa Early Dwarf, Arka Saurabh, Arka Ahuti, Arka Vikas, Arka Meghali, HS101, etc. Hybrid varieties like Pusa Hybrid 1, Pusa Hybrid 2, Pusa Hybrid 3, Arka Abhijit, Arka Vishal, Arka Shresta, Arka Vardan, Vaishali, COTH 1 Hybrid Tomato, Rashmi, MTH 4, etc. are also popular. In fact nowadays, farmers are looking for seeds of heat resistant tomato varieties.
Tomatoes can be grown on varied types of soil – from sandy loam to clay, black and red soil. The soil is tilled and levelled. Plus nutrients like decomposed cow dung, Carbofuron or Neem cake are applied. Some farmers lay a transparent plastic film over the soil. This process, known as solarisation absorbs radiation and increases soil temperature thereby killing pathogens and pests.
After the tomato seeds are transplanted to the soil, they are sprayed with water enriched with micronutrients. The seedlings are transplanted within 25 to 30 days of sowing. Staking is done to support the plants as they grow and keep the tomatoes from touching the soil or water, hence avoid rot.
Different fertilizers like Mono Ammonium Phosphate, Boron, calcium nitrate, etc. are applied at different stages to aid in optimum production. Frequent weeding is also done.
Irrigation plays an important role too. During winters, irrigation is done every 6 to 7 days, while in summers, it is done every 10 to 15 days. The flowering stage is quite critical and only a successful flowering can lead to a productive harvest. Experts suggest half inch of irrigation every fortnight for optimum results, and even then, drip irrigation is recommended.
Pest control is another expense, since various pests have to be handled differently. Apart from common pests like thrips, mites, white flies, blight, leaf miners, etc., there are also diseases like mildew, fruit rot, Anthracnose, damping off disease, etc. brought on by conditions associated with climate change.
70 days after being transplanted, the tomatoes are harvested. Mature green tomatoes with are ideal for long distance transport. Those that are firm with a pinkish hue are sent to nearby markets. The firm red ones are sold in the local market, and the ripest tomatoes with soft flesh are sent off for processing into tomato paste (which is the most exported tomato product). A word on processing – most Indian tomato varieties produce small yields, thereby providing less than enough to supply for processing. China leads when it comes to the export of processed tomato paste while India stands at the 13th position. In fact, many major companies that use tomato paste (for ketchup requirements, etc.) find it more affordable to import tomato paste from China.
The harvested tomatoes are sorted, graded and packed into crates. Tomatoes are highly perishable and most farmers don’t have adequate cold storage facilities. The tomatoes are sent in trucks for sale in mandis, where they are sold to interested buyers who finally sell it to you. Transportation is one of the most pressing concerns for tomato farmers since the shelf life of the vegetable is low.
Even under ideal circumstances, there are additional costs in terms of farm inputs as well as labour charges at each stage. However, there are also losses at post-harvest, harvesting, and distribution stages. Once you throw in any disrupting factor, the supply is affected leading to soaring prices.
Why are tomato prices soaring?
Controlling tomato prices is an ongoing battle. Tomatoes are used throughout India and are in high demand. However, the tomato trade is highly based on demand and supply and this often leads to price fluctuations. This year, we have seen the vegetable being sold for up to Rs 100 per kg in many parts of the country. Let’s look at some of the biggest causes this year:
Tomatoes thrive in warm weather, and the heat wave that struck the Northern part of the country between March-April (with temperatures in some places reaching almost 50°C) affected the crops by drying off the flowers and forcing them to shed small fruits. In fact, tomato flowers can drop off within four hours of being exposed to temperatures exceeding 40 °C. Similarly, heavy rainfall in the South affected the supply of tomatoes from South Indian states. Cyclone Asani suspended supplies and caused a price surge for tomatoes in several parts of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.
Climate change has also brought on an increase in pest attacks which has further affected the output. Unfortunately, most of these pests have now become immune to pesticides.
Over the past two years, many farmers had to reconsider tomatoes as a profitable crop owing to the Covid crisis and the accompanying lockdowns. Since there is no infrastructure to help farmers producing perishable vegetables, crops like tomatoes often go through periods of glut and shortages. Absence of real-time season-wise data which can advise farmers on the profitability of their crops leaves too much up to chance and bad judgement. Many farmers falsely anticipated a loss and hence did not focus on tomato cultivation. This adversely affected the supply.
Apart from these, some of the ongoing problems include low yields. Tomato yields are not as high as it could be and the seed variants too have not been engineered keeping new climatic challenges in mind. Farmers too lack the right knowhow when it comes to getting the highest yields from their crops.
We hope this article shed light on the current tomato price inflation. Do share your feedback in the comment section below. Don’t forget to like, share and follow the Bijak blog for regular weekly articles from experts. Bijak is India’s most trusted agri-trading app that acts as a meeting point for farmers, Buyers (commission agents), and Suppliers. It oversees trade in over 150 commodities (including tomatoes). If you’re an agri trader, please download the Bijak app from Google Playstore and Apple App Store. You can also call us at 8588998844 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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