By Christian Loeffler
Around the cafeteria and Shack this semester, you may have noticed a distinct absence of tomatoes, with the occasional tomato-based product showing up like a rare delicacy. This scarcity, though, is more than a Saint Vincent College issue – it’s indicative of a widespread agricultural disaster transpiring in our country’s southern neighbor.
SVC’s tomato shortage is due to heavy rainfalls in Mexico, as noted by signs placed out by Parkhurst. Ford’s Produce Co., a produce distributor located in North Carolina, stated that cold weather resulted in slow growth for tomato plants and that heavy rains in December 2019 contributed to a lower tomato yield and quality issues with tomatoes to be harvested. Freeze damage was also reflected in quality reports.
This scarcity of tomatoes has resulted in significant price increases for different food providers around the country and the rest of the world. An article from the University of Florida stated that the world’s top five tomato producers provided about 70 percent of global production in 2016, with Mexico having served as the leading exporter of tomatoes in the world. This dependency on a small group of exporters can lead to dramatic effects in the event that even a single producer has harvest issues.
Though California, Florida, and Indiana are among the top tomato-growing states for fresh-market tomatoes in 2018 and did not receive the same kind of weather-based devastation, their supply is incomparable to imported resources and their prices are significantly higher as a result, according to the farm-focused news site Farm Flavor.
According to a Jan. 20 update from Ford’s Produce Co., “Florida is harvesting light [tomato] supplies right now and there’s just not enough to go around and fill demand.”
Also contributing to diminished tomato yields is the brown rugose fruit virus, or ToBRFV, according to American Seed Trade Association. Some effects of the virus may include browning of infected plants, blotching, undersized plants, or plants with an unusually rough surface. All side effects ultimately result in undesirable, underdeveloped foods.
According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), “[tomato] brown rugose fruit virus can cause severe fruit loss in tomatoes and peppers. It is easily spread through the use of contaminated tools, hands, and plant-to-plant contact.”
In fact, the American Seed Trade Association stated the virus is “very stable and can survive for long periods in infected crop debris, in the soil or on contaminated surfaces. On surfaces such as a bench tops, survival could be weeks to months.”
While not as evident as the weather crisis, the virus remains a growing fear for tomato farmers. According to the USDA, the virus was first reported in Israel in 2014, which has spread to several other countries that grow tomatoes, including Mexico. Further regulations have already been imposed by the USDA and the US Customs and Border Protection for tomatoes imported to the United States to help handle the situation. These regulations are expected to increase over time and include inspection of imported plants, seeds, and other plant materials, according to the USDA.
The current tomato shortage is not the first that the United States has experienced. CNN reported that in 2010, due to unusually cold weather, approximately 60 to 70 percent of Florida’s tomato crop was destroyed, resulting in restaurants and other businesses being unable to order regular supplies.
Today, however, the tomato shortage is expected to continue, despite greater tomato abundance and better pricing compared to January or December.
The produce-focused newspaper, The Package noted that “shortages could continue after the spring harvest begins in late February or early March” and that “the effect of the bad weather may be felt well into April.” Until then, accommodations have been made by some producers to increase greenhouse production of tomato plants.
Tomatoes are not the only plant that has been devastated by weather, either. The Package indicated that squash, cucumbers, and other vegetation were a big devastation for producers such as SunFed, a produce company situated in southern Arizona.