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Tomato Crisis in India; Pakistan Fears Impact

The price of tomato, which was sold at Rs 40-50 in June, has now crossed Rs 150.
by TNN Editor - 22 Jul, 2023 1592

Iftikhar Khan

A quarrel between husband and wife over putting more tomatoes in curry— Bandits robbed a truck full of tomatoes— Farmer became a millionaire in one season by trading tomatoes. Such news related to tomatoes is top trending in India today. This is due to the low production of tomatoes due to storms and floods in the neighboring country and difficulties in accessing other areas, which has caused prices there to run from INR 150 to INR 400 (Pakistani Rupees 1,200) per kg.

In Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, due to the low production of tomatoes, the situation in the coming days will be closely similar, if not exactly similar to that of India.

In the last month, the prices of tomatoes have increased by two to three times in the province. The price of tomato, which was sold at Rs 40-50 in June, has now crossed Rs 150. The increase in prices is actually due to the premature end of the tomato crop in the plains of the province.

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In these areas, the crop is harvested till mid-August, but this year, surprisingly, the crops have dried up from the end of June and the beginning of July, which is being attributed to climate change.

Syed Kamal Shah, a farmer and, fertilizer and pesticide dealer from Mardan, says that he had cultivated tomato crops on two and a half acres of land this year for Rs 5 lakh, but the total income was Rs 2 lakh. Syed Kamal Shah, who has been growing tomatoes every season for the last 15 years, says that for the last three to four years, the crop either yields very low returns or turns out to be a loss-making business.

He says that this year in the month of 'Jeth' (mid-May to mid-June) there was a surprising amount of dew at night and the usual sunshine during the day. This dramatic fluctuation in temperature took its toll on the crop and since then it has been attacked by various diseases. This year, the crop was affected by various diseases including early blight, and late blight, on which the farmers sprayed many times, which increased their expenses, but to no avail, and the tomato fields all dried up.

Ayub Jan, principal research officer of Tarnab Farm, an agronomist, and agricultural research institute, also supports the stand of the Mardan farmer. According to him, various types of fungi attack tomatoes due to the dramatic change in temperature during day and night, which makes these plants vulnerable to early and late blight.

According to the agricultural expert, the tomato plant needs a moderate temperature of 26 to 34 Celsius, but for the past few years, it has been seen that this temperature is very low in this season.

In the last two years, during the months of 'Jeth' and 'Haar' (mid-May to mid-July) in our plains, the sun's rays become very intense, and the humidity in the air decreases. 50 to 55% air humidity is most suitable for the tomato crop. Due to low humidity, both the soil and plants evaporate, and the plants become weak. In such a case, the farmer should either irrigate the field every other day or adopt a traditional method of planting shelterbelt plants every ten feet to provide shade to the crops.

Ayub Jan says that in Mansehra and other temperate climate areas, tomato crop is produced from May to August, so this year the crops in these areas have dried up at the beginning of July.

Agriculture expert says that Pakistan is completely dependent on hybrid seeds for tomato crop. Since these seeds are imported from foreign countries, sometimes the weather and climate here are not very suitable for them. The government should provide hybrids as well as good quality common seeds from around the world to agricultural research centers which can be marketed after further research.

Pakistan's Position in the Global Tomato Market

Pakistan's impact on global climate change emissions is minimal. However, the 2017 Climate Change Performance Index ranked the country among the top 10 nations affected by these changes. Agriculture bears the brunt of climate change's impact, significantly impacting Pakistan's major crops like wheat, sugarcane, rice, and cotton.

Additionally, smaller crops such as tomatoes, potatoes, and chickpeas, though cultivated in limited areas, play crucial roles in ensuring national food security and preserving the country's food culture.

Among various crops affected by climate change, tomatoes suffer extensively, and their decreasing production has led to social and political unrest in Pakistan. China holds the title for the largest tomato production in the world. According to a 2016 report by the World Food Organization, China produces a staggering 56.4 million tons of tomatoes annually. Following closely behind are India, the USA, and Turkey, securing second, third, and fourth positions, respectively.

However, Pakistan ranks 35th on this list. In 2016, Pakistan's total tomato production reached 585 thousand tons, as reported in the compilation year. Unfortunately, by 2022, this production witnessed a decline, dropping further to 541 thousand tons.

Remarkably, a research paper published in the Journal of Animal and Plants reveals that Pakistan ranks 34th in tomato production globally but holds the 11th position in terms of cultivated area. Despite dedicating more land to tomato cultivation, climate change remains a key factor contributing to low production. The adverse effects of climate change impede proper plant growth and result in reduced yields. Tomato crops are increasingly vulnerable to various insect and disease attacks, hampering national demand for tomatoes over the years.

Comparatively, Pakistan's tomato production per hectare lags significantly, with a yield of 9.5 tons, while the global average reaches up to 38 tons per hectare. According to the 2017 data from the Ministry of National Food Security and Research, Punjab recorded the highest production of tomatoes per hectare at 13 tonnes, followed by Balochistan with 11 tons, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with 9.5 tons, and Sindh with 7.4 tons per hectare.

Tomatoes Impacting Household Budgets

The premature decline in local tomato production has resulted in soaring prices, significantly affecting the monthly budget of the common man.

Shabana Bibi, a housewife from Mardan, laments that while in previous years, tomatoes would cost around Rs 50 per kg, this year, the price has skyrocketed to over Rs 150. The increasing cost of electricity bills, fees, and other household items was already straining their financial situation, and now the exorbitant prices of tomatoes and vegetables are exacerbating their problems.

Shabana emphasizes the crucial role tomatoes play in their daily meals, stating that curries are incomplete without them, and both adults and children rely on their inclusion in various dishes. Cheaper tomatoes are available, but they lack quality, being small in size and lacking juiciness, necessitating the use of a larger quantity.

Hina Fayyaz, a research officer at Tarnab Farm, explains that adverse weather conditions and temperature fluctuations have deprived the tomato crops of essential nutrients from the soil, resulting in reduced production. This year's tomatoes have been particularly affected, with prematurely dried plants lacking sap in their seeds, further adding to the scarcity and rising prices.

Afghan Traders Eyeing Indian Market Amidst Tomato Shortage in Pakistan

Pakistan maintains a year-round production of tomatoes across different regions, with additional imports and exports as required. Major export destinations include Afghanistan and Gulf countries, while imports primarily originate from Afghanistan and Iran, especially after the local production declines from July onward.

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Abdul Rahman, a customs clearance agent at the Torkham border, reports that this year's tomato imports from Afghanistan have already commenced. However, since Afghanistan's tomato season has not yet started, current imports remain limited to 30 trawlers per day.

He anticipates a significant increase in trade volume, up to 150 trawlers daily, once the tomato harvest in Logar province and Kabul ripen in the coming weeks. This surge in imports is expected to stabilize tomato prices in Pakistan once again. Subsequently, when Afghanistan's tomato season concludes, trade from Iran via Afghanistan takes over.

Abdul Rahman remains hopeful that if Afghan exporters fail to obtain favorable prices in Pakistan and if the tomato shortage continues in India, they might explore the Indian market. As an early indication of this possibility, 5-6 trawlers laden with tomatoes have already passed through Pakistan en route to India in recent days. Such interest from Afghan traders could potentially lead to a further increase in tomato prices in Pakistan if they divert their exports to India.