Why prices of tomatoes surged and why we are shedding onion tears

A group of street children runs after trucks and tractor trailers ferrying innumerable crates of tomatoes to Narayangaon market in Pune. The last few days have been good for these children who have been selling overripe tomatoes picked from the trash. 

"We sell these to small vegetable sellers and eatery owners nearby. We get Rs 15- 20 for a kilo," says Dhodu, having cutting-chai and a small packet of Parle-G biscuits. 

In all likelihood, Dhodu and his friends would be the only ones praying for tomato prices to stay firm for some more time. For everybody else, from farmers who did not cultivate enough this season, to vegetable traders who did not block prices at the farm itself, to customers who could not miss their curry, the last few weeks have been pretty harrowing. 

Wholesale tomato prices touched Rs 70 per kilo in end-July, on the back of a severe supply shortage in vegetable mandis. In certain markets, tomatoes competed with pears and apples, selling at retail prices in excess of Rs 140 per kilo. 

"There's not enough supply," says Vandana Vilas Temkar, one the very few women traders in Narayangaon tomato market. "Early last week, we were buying tomatoes at Rs 1,600 per crate. Now it has softened a bit. Farmers are now selling to us in Rs 900-1,200 range." 

Not far behind, onion prices have also been creeping up over the past few days. Onion supply in key markets dropped from 3.04 lakh tonnes in June to 2.8 lakh tonnes in July, reveals National Horticulture Board data. Prices have gone up in key markets, from a monthly average of Rs 846 in June to Rs 868 last month. 

According to farmers at Narayangaon, prices have not gone up much as the demand pull of onions is low during the month of Shravan and may shoot up after August 7. 

Tomato prices, though, should cool off over the next two weeks. But it may take a few months before supply chains are restored and markets get flooded with good ones at affordable prices. "Retail prices may come down to Rs 25-30 per kilo once fresh produce from Lasalgaon, Pimpalgaon, Nashik and Dindori hit the market in the third week of August," assures Anil Narayan Kashid, a tomato farmer and trader at Narayangaon. 

The recent rise in tomato prices bares the hardships and uncertainties faced by vegetable farmers for several years. Pestilence, lower prices, weak supply chains, depleting yield, poor quality seeds and seedlings, climate change have all spurred them to switch crops for good, from decades of cultivating tomatoes to sugarcane, maize, soya, cauliflower, even grapes. 

"The government has not developed infrastructure to help farmers producing perishable vegetables. This is one reason why you see glut-and-shortage situations at regular intervals," says Pritam Kalia, emeritus scientist (vegetable sciences), Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI). 

Tomato is a relatively warm season crop, with day and night temperature requirement in the range of 26-30 degree Celsius and 14-19 degree Celsius respectively. The plant requires low-to-medium rainfall and some sunshine at fruit-ripening stage. 

Maharashtra farmers and south Indian markets supply tomatoes to most parts of the country from April to August/September. 

This year, however, many chose not to grow tomatoes, after low prices for the fruit a few months ago. In December and January, retail prices had plunged to Rs 2 and Rs 4. "Narayangaon farmers grew tomatoes in 25,000 acres last year; this year, it is 13,000 acres," says Shriram Gadhave, president of Vegetable Growers Association of India. "Farmers are tired of low yields and pestilence. 

Our per-acre yields have dropped from 15 tonnes a few years ago to just over 2 tonnes now." The Narayangaon market, which until last year logged in 75,000 crates (1 crate has 22-24 kg of tomatoes) every day, is down to about 14,000 crates. At country level, tomato arrivals across key markets dropped 57% to 69,217 tonnes in July, from 1,20,568 tonnes seven months earlier. This supply shortage triggered price rise, say traders. 

"In fact, supplies from Karnataka, especially Bengaluru, helped restrict further price rise," says Mahesh Shingote of Shivner Tomato Suppliers. Another reason for the shortage was the farmers' strike in early June, which caused tonnes of tomatoes to perish in crates. If one goes by local estimates, Narayangaon farmers alone lost over 3 lakh crates of tomatoes during the 12-day strike. 

In 2015-16, tomato growers started using 1057, a seed variety bio-engineered by an MNC. This was later proven to be susceptible to virus attacks. 

"It started 'the tiranga' virus that bore coloured patches on the fruit. A good portion of our crop was destroyed then," says Gadhave. 

"Pesticides and insecticides are not helping us. These pests and viruses have turned immune to the medicines we spray on them." Tomato crops are usually attacked by whiteflies, red mites and gram pod borers. One of the reasons for frequent pestilence is the recurring crop pattern adopted by farmers. In places like Narayangaon, farmers have been growing tomatoes for close to three decades now. The pests have got entrenched in the crop cycle. 

Nashik and other tomato-growing regions in Maharashtra have also been seeing an uptick in temperature. Farmers say seeds/seedlings are unable to withstand 34-36 degree Celsius. "Seed companies will have to come up with heat-tolerant seed varieties," says Kalia of IARI. 

Also, India exports tomatoes to Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. Traders have to fulfil pre-arranged orders before filling up local mandis; this, too, impacted domestic distribution, say a few traders. 

Crying Over Onion 
For onion tears, the villain is rains. "Onions crops in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have got spoilt due to excessive rains. Lower storage is also becoming a problem," says Nikhil Padade, Nashik area branch manager of NAFED (National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India). 
"New onion stock from Nashik may give some respite; but the problem would be when farmers start holding stock in expectations of a higher price. Traders expect whole sale prices to tip Rs 30-35 per kilo levels." Onions are traded at Rs 17-21 per kg in most markets across the country. 

Rising vegetable prices have set even the RBI thinking about near-term inflation. It expects consumer prices in October-March to rise by 3.5-4.5%. The silver lining is that higher food prices would assuage some stress in the farm sector and rural incomes would rise. 

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