How do you like your tomatoes? Maybe on a sandwich or in a caprese salad? Or perhaps you prefer the processed versions — pasta sauce, pizza sauce or, of course, America’s favorite condiment: ketchup. Americans consume upward of 30 pounds of the fruit a year, three-quarters of that in processed form.
While the commercially produced fresh fruit varieties are mostly grown in heavily controlled environments, away from the elements, climate change is looking like it will be a big issue for processing tomatoes (the ketchup-making kind).
But, before you start stocking up on ketchup or (gasp) moving over to team mustard, there are a few factors at play that might make the situation less (or, yes, potentially more) dire.
Here’s a look at how likely it is that climate change will come for America’s favorite fruit and how farmers and researchers are working to make sure it doesn’t.
Tomatoes are especially susceptible to climate change
By 2050, production in the United States (California produces 90 percent of the nation’s processing tomatoes), China and Italy — the world’s three biggest “tomato baskets” — could drop by 6 percent, according to a study published in Nature Food in June.
Processing tomatoes have, in the past, loved to grow in California’s temperate climate. But the state is getting hotter, with temperatures reaching upward of 95 degrees in spring and summer in areas that grow tomatoes, such as the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys. That’s a little too toasty for tomato comfort.
In extremely high temperatures, a lower percentage of flowers on a tomato plant will develop into fruit, said Tom Turini, a University of California farm adviser responsible for vegetable crops in central California, particularly Fresno and Kings counties.
Higher air temperatures also spell out bad news for irrigation, especially given that some areas, like California, are already facing chronic water shortages — which is issue No. 2.
Increasing temperatures lead to greater water loss from the earth’s surface, the Nature Food study said. In California, even if there is a projected increase in total rainfall, more water will still be needed for irrigation because of the increasing temperatures, the authors wrote.
Advances in irrigation have allowed tomato production to more or less double over a 20-year period, but tomatoes are still a fruit that’s about 95 percent water — requiring 300 to 400 millimeters of water per growing season to grow. The technology hasn’t been able to keep up, and that figure will only double.
This is particularly a challenge for places like California’s Fresno County, which currently dominates the state’s tomato production. The area has faced water shortages — further complicated by water quality — for years, which puts its tomato farming in jeopardy, said Turini.
Typically, there are two water sources used to irrigate processing tomato crops: groundwater pumped from an aquifer and snowpack from the Sierra Nevadas, the higher quality of the two, Turini said.
But … the water isn’t as good as it used to be. Low levels of snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas, which typically accounts for a third of the state’s water supply, over the last couple of years is making it harder to get higher-quality water. If farmers in California’s San Joaquin Valley must rely on groundwater instead, they’ll have to figure out how to get around relatively high levels of total dissolved salts and some toxic levels of ions, such as boron and sodium, Turini said.
And then there are the bugs. Pests, viruses and soilborne fungal diseases are thriving, in part because California doesn’t have the cold winters it had in the not-so-distant past, Turini said. Tomato-producing areas are seeing disease and pest issues, like the whitefly or spotted tomato wilt virus, that they didn’t used to have to deal with, he said.
What this could mean for your ketchup
Because production costs with water, fuel and fertilizer are rising, Turini anticipates prices going up even more than they already are — and things will only get worse if the yield produced per acre goes down, he said.
Compared with the $3,000 it cost a few years ago, growing an acre of processing tomatoes now costs more than $4,000, Aaron Barcellos, a grower in central California told Vegetable Growers News. The situation, exacerbated by drought, has become more dire in the last two years.
These costs are already being passed along to industry clients and consumers. “Gains in tomato sauce and ketchup are outpacing the rise in US food inflation, which is at its highest in 43 years,” Bloomberg reported.
As of August, retail prices for tomato sauce were 17 percent higher than last year’s, while ketchup’s were 23 percent higher, according to data analytics and market research company IRI. Last year, for instance, ketchup’s price per unit was $3.08 compared with $2.64 in 2016.
Ingomar Packing Co., a leading tomato processor, sold tomato paste to industry buyers for as much as 80 percent more than it did last year, Bloomberg said.
There isn’t one solution, but a multipronged approach might at least help
Farmers and researchers are trying different methods to combat the problem, including:
- Forming more wells
- Rotating fields so soil has a chance to recuperate.
- Using a water optimization strategy called “deficit irrigation,” which is irrigating later in the season with less water than is being evaporated or transpired
- Cutting back on water later in the season
- Moving production outside of historically used areas, typically concentrated near canneries
Because of future restrictions around water usage, it’s also possible that irrigation may be diverted away from less-profitable crops, like pasture for animal feed, to sustain tomato production, according to a separate study published last November in Nature Food.
“We need to double the amount of water, but still we get a reduction in yield because it’s that temperature that drives it,” said Davide Cammarano, a co-author of June’s Nature Food study and professor of agroecology at Aarhus University in Denmark. “That’s … where genetics and agronomy would come in to help for that.”
Re-homing the tomato industry
Changes in temperature could mean also mean that new regions, like Washington state and Northern California, become viable for growing tomatoes, the authors of the 2021 study wrote.
Of course, relocating tomato production comes with its own fair share of challenges. Currently, crops are concentrated around processing plants, which cuts down on costs for fuel and trucking and provides ready access to water, energy and skilled labor, the authors wrote.
Researchers have also raised concerns about what changing supply chains or importing tomatoes could mean for sustainability. If Italy, historically one of the world’s major tomato baskets, for example, was forced to import more of its tomatoes from Spain, Germany and elsewhere, Cammarano said, it’s not going to be environmentally sustainable, given, for instance, the emissions that come with transporting the goods.
Regardless of the challenges ahead, some researchers like Turini remain optimistic. In addition to having a great deal of open land with good soil and a temperate climate, the region has the infrastructure set up for tomato production, he said.
“I think that would contribute to resilience in our system to maintain that we’re going to be a production area well into the future because of the advantages that we have,” said Turini. “Not everyone’s gonna be that optimistic.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.