Thieves target tomato shipments in India as prices soar due to unprecedented shortage

Value of fruit has rocketed five-fold in some regions as crops hit by heatwaves, cyclones and heavy rains. Arpan Rai reports from Delhi

Tuesday 11 July 2023 10:06 BST
<p>A trader in Mumbai, when supplies were more readily available</p>

A trader in Mumbai, when supplies were more readily available

India is in the grip of a tomato shortage, with the staple disappearing from the menu for households and restaurant chains alike after extreme weather devastated this year’s crop and severed supply lines.

Prices have rocketed five-fold in some cities, making 1kg of tomatoes more expensive than 1 litre of petrol. In a country where tomatoes are an essential culinary item, vegetable stores and carts have resorted to stocking long-life packs of puree as substitutes.

With the fruit suddenly becoming a rare commodity, there are multiple reports from across the country of farms and deliveries being targeted by thieves.

On Saturday, a truck carrying 2,000 tonnes of tomatoes to a central market in Bengaluru was attacked by several men who reportedly accused the driver of hitting their vehicle, before taking his money and making off with the shipment.

Elsewhere in the same state of Karnataka last week, tomatoes worth Rs250,000 (£2,360) were allegedly stolen overnight from a woman’s farm. She says unknown people entered the field and stole some 50 to 60 bags worth of produce before destroying what remained of the field and leaving.

The farmer, Dharini, told local media that the attack took place just before she and her family could harvest the ripe fruit, spread across two acres of land.

Wholesale prices of the staple have shot up by 288 per cent in just a month in some regions, according to the Reuters news agency. At one shop in the capital Delhi where 1kg of tomatoes cost Rs39 a month ago, the price was listed as Rs193 on Monday.

Memes relating to the tomato shortage are being widely shared across social media, and news of McDonald’s branches in the capital running out of them quickly went viral. Images shared online showed notices plastered in restaurant windows stating that tomatoes would no longer be served in their burgers and wraps until further notice.

“Despite our best efforts, we are not able to get adequate quantities of tomatoes which pass our stringent quality checks,” notices posted in two McDonald’s stores in Delhi read.

In the city of Varanasi a shopkeeper posed with “security guards” standing either side of his tomatoes in an apparent protest over the soaring wholesale price.

Ajay Fauji claimed to journalists that he had employed the bouncers from 9am to 5pm at his shop in the Lanka area’s market to prevent haggling and altercations with angry customers arguing with him over the spiking prices, though it was later reported that he was an activist for the opposition Samajwadi Party.

The world’s second largest tomato producer after China, India has suffered a series of blows to the crop this year from erratic weather events. The biggest impact appears to have come from Cyclone Biparjoy in Gujarat last month, which not only distrupted the region’s production but also its key trade routes through western India’s Nashik, Pune and Bengaluru.

On Sunday, Delhi reported the wettest 24-hour period in July since 1982, and dozens of bridges and highways were washed away in heavy rains across northern India, killing 22. This has also severed trade routes across the region, both for tomatoes and other staples.

Tomatoes have a short shelf-life compared to other fruit and vegetables, says senior trader Dalvinder Singh Bhalla in Asia’s largest wholesale fruits and vegetable market Azadpur Mandi, Delhi.

He says that even semi-rotten batches are being sent to market to try and ease the shortage, but that this isn’t enough.

“We had the first inkling of the crisis brewing a month back when Gujarat was hit by Cyclone Biparjoy. Farmers anticipated that the produce will not yield them any returns in the market as prices will surge and no one will buy,” he tells The Independent, adding that some traders saw farmers destoying their own crops and sowing another more sturdy crop instead.

“Just a month back, we saw tomatoes selling for Rs6-7 kgs at wholesale prices, now it’s at Rs100-120kg,” the trader says. “Instead of 20 trucks carrying hundreds of kilograms of tomatoes, only five are barely trickling in the morning.”

Alongside onions and potatoes, tomatoes are one of India’s three largest cultivated, produced and consumed staples – the triumverate known as TOP. It is a key ingredient to cuisines across all 28 states and essential for a huge range of dishes, making it vulnerable to extreme price fluctuations if stocks are destroyed.

Agriculture experts in India have called on authorities to do more to prepare for extreme weather.

Indra Shekhar Singh, independent agri-policy analyst and former director of Policy and Outreach for National Seed Association of India, said: “In India, the authorities are just keeping their heads down. We need climate contingency plans, we’re talking about AI and tech in agriculture but is it reaching the farmer who can use it? The government should start intervening, send alerts to farmers stopping them from sowing a crop if it will suffer damage. There should be timely alerts to farmers on sowing.”

Ms Singh says this crisis is a result of the destruction of India’s “off-season” production cycle, and the first pinch of its kind this year following a spike in wheat prices caused by erratic weather patterns earlier this year.

There will also be no short-term fix, he says, to ease pressure on the tomato market as other neighbouring large producers – Pakistan and Sri Lanka – are going through their own crises. Ties with China are not stable enough for India to ask for help, he adds.

Mr Bhalla says he fears it could be a month before the market returns to normal, calling on the authorities to make better preparations for supply chain and post-harvest losses to prevent similar shortages recurring.

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