A failure of tomato seeds might have contributed to the current rise in tomato prices across Maharashtra, if not the rest of the country. Since April, tomato prices have more than doubled across India. While the conventional wisdom has attributed this to excessive heat and unseasonal rain that affected the tomato crop at its flowering stage, farmers in a belt of 20,000 acres in Western Maharashtra attribute this instead to a disease in the TO-1057 seeds produced by leading agriculture company Syngenta. The total area under tomato cultivation in Maharashtra in 2013-14 was 1.23 lakh acres or 50,000 hectares.
“Almost all the seeds from Syngenta company went bad this year,” said Shriram Gadhave, president of the All India Vegetable Growers’ Association, who works in Narayangaon near Pune and has himself cultivated tomatoes. “Each tomato was green, yellow and red and inside, they were all rotten.”
Around half the seeds in this belt were Syngenta seeds, said Gadhave, and almost all of them failed. This condition did not hurt all tomato cultivators: only those who planted TO-1057 seeds were affected, he said. Gadhave himself had planted tomatoes on one acre of land, with TO-1057 on half and Arka Rakshak seeds on the other half. Only the Arka Rakshak tomatoes yielded any fruit.
Vasant Pimpale, 25, planted Syngenta seeds on six acres of land in his village Pargaon, near Narayangaon, at the beginning of the tomato growing season from December to August. His usual yield per acre is 60 tonnes-70 tonnes, he said. This year, it was not even 10 tonnes. There are two harvests in each season, so after it became clear that the first had failed, he planted the Syngenta seeds on only four acres. This section too has failed.
“Tomato is a cash crop for people here because the rates are so high,” he said. “People have been buying from Syngenta for 30 years which is why they trusted them so much. But with problems in the last two years, we will have to think about this again.” The problems began only last year, when tomatoes planted for a second time at the end of the season began to manifest the disease. This year, the disease showed up from the beginning of the season itself.
“We have the problem of variety and of climate,” Pimpale said. “This year, the yield is down which is why the rate is very good, so even if we get only 10 tonnes, we are getting more money for that.” TT Kolekar, circle agriculture officer for Narayangaon, confirmed that the disease had indeed affected Syngenta seeds the most. One of the symptoms of the virus has been discolouration of tomatoes which ripen too soon and have a shorter life span than usual.
“The virus spread very quickly in the TO-1057 crop,” Kolekar said. “Other varieties were also affected, but much less. It might also have spread because of other conditions like very high temperatures.” The agricultural department surveyed the damage at the end of April and Syngenta representatives on the field have promised individual farmers compensation. This is yet to come.
“Company ne hum sabko fasa diya,” Gadhave said. The company has put them all in a fix. “They have given us only empty words. We don’t know what to do now.” Syngenta India did not respond to a request for comment.
Heat another factor
Another significant cause for the drop in tomato production has been excessive heat. Flowering in the western Maharashtra belt was supposed to happen in April. However, with high temperatures, several plants did not flower. This has affected not just tomatoes, Gadhave said, but all vegetables.
“There is no water in tomato-growing areas so there has been no cultivation at all,” said Anna Ghule, officer in charge of the vegetable section of the Pune Agriculture Produce Market. “Areas that used to grow tomatoes [such as Nashik and Ahmednagar] have stopped growing it, which is why the output is less. That is why the prices of all vegetables have gone up. Once the rain comes in one or two months, prices will go down.”
Between the heat and disease, production of tomatoes has plummeted. The average annual yield per acre of tomatoes in the 20,000 acre belt covering 30 to 40 villages and centred in Narayangaon is around 40 tonnes. This year it averages at around 10 tonnes. A similar story is playing out in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, which together usually have the highest tomato production in the country. In most years, the two states supply North India with tomatoes. The production in the tomato-producing states of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has also been disappointing.
This year, all five states have been affected by the heat. Instead, traders in markets in Hyderabad and Tamil Nadu have been importing the fruit from Delhi and Lucknow. This has in turn pushed up tomato prices in the north.
“The effect of the summer on tomatoes is very clear this year,” said N Jagadish, supervisor of the Madanapalle Market Committee, the largest tomato market in Ananthapur, where most tomatoes in Andhra Pradesh are grown. “Tomato budding has collapsed in the heat so production is 50% down. For the last three to four days we have been seeing an abnormal rise in price from Rs 40 per kg to Rs 80.”
With around 50 vehicles each with a capacity of 18 tonnes having arrived in Hyderabad from Delhi, Jagadish said prices were beginning to dip once more, particularly if traders searching for stocks at low prices were to go to Hyderabad from Madanapalle.
Ironically, another reason for the slump in production has also been bountiful rain, especially in Andhra Pradesh: this prompted more farmers to grow paddy instead of tomato. “They think that tomato rate is like lottery because they cannot guess when it will be raised or down,” said Jagadish. “So since water was available even in the Rabi [winter] season, they have not sown tomatoes at all.”
Alternatives for farmers in the two states include watermelon and muskmelon. Prices will remain high for the next two months, Gadhave warned. With the rain still to set in over Maharashtra, which is one of the leading suppliers of tomatoes at this time of the year, farmers are holding back on planting new crops.