Alleviating the burden
The recent spike in prices of certain vegetables might be a manifestation of excessive reliance and focus on a corporate-controlled, narrow food basket; revival of traditional local food ecosystem could offer a stable solution by diversifying the market with more nutritious alternatives
Heatwaves and heavy rains in June and July led to a huge spike of 30-40 per cent in vegetable prices across all the cities of India. Retail price of tomatoes has even crossed Rs 250 in Uttarakhand market. It may be recalled that a few months ago, the tomato growers dumped truckloads of tomatoes in the Greater Noida area as prices plummeted to Rs 1.50 per kg. In addition to tomatoes, in a few places, green chilli is being sold at Rs 200 per kg and ginger at Rs 300 per kg. The prices of vegetables listed in the table have spiked at an uncharacteristic rate. Tomato price has increased by nearly 1,315 per cent.
Market watchers fear that if heavy rain continues, the vegetable price will soar further. Recent rain in Himachal Pradesh has further aggravated the situation. Moreover, the monthlong unrest in Manipur and adjoining hilly areas of the North East India, which is considered as the major ginger cultivation centre of the country, has disrupted the supply chain resulting in abnormal price rise.
As per a July 7 report by India Today, over the last few months, low vegetable prices helped in the significant decline of inflation. Consumer Price Index (CPI) reached a 25-month low of 4.25 per cent in May. The current spike in vegetable prices will contribute to a substantial increase in retail inflation in the market. This will most likely delay the possibility of interest rate reduction in near future. A prolonged food inflation will reduce the purchasing power of the citizens, affecting overall economic growth.
Importance of TOP vegetables
It is also found that although tomato, onion, and potato (TOP) constitute a minor proportion of the Consumer Price Index Combined basket, they significantly contribute to the fluctuation and instability of headline inflation, reported Business Standard on July 3.
The surging prices of tomatoes can potentially disrupt India’s inflation trajectory, a study by researchers at the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) said. According to the report, there is unidirectional volatility transmission from tomato (T) prices to those of onions (O) and potatoes (P). This means that variations in tomato prices have an impact on the pricing of onions and potatoes. The report also mentions that the surging prices of tomatoes can potentially disrupt India’s inflation trajectory. The study found that there is a unidirectional volatility transmission from tomato prices to those of onions and potatoes. This means that variations in tomato prices have an impact on the pricing of onions and potatoes.
The importance tomatoes enjoy as an elite vegetable in India can be realised when we see the numerous initiatives taken by the Union government and different state
governments. For example,
the Consumer Affairs Ministry has announced a Tomato Grand Challenge on June 20. Innovative ideas have been invited to come out with a comprehensive strategic solution for reducing loss while imparting value addition. As per the ministry, the idea will be invited in four verticals, reports CNBC.
* First, improving and popularising improved tomato varieties, production technology and practices;
* Second, designing and disseminating crop planning and market intelligence for farmers;
* Third, innovative post-harvest treatment and packaging solutions;
* Innovative storage technologies and solutions for longer preservation to avoid panic selling.
The state governments of Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, and Andhra Pradesh have taken initiatives to stabilise the price of TOP vegetables. It seems that after the wheat and paddy-centric Green Revolution of the 1960s, the government’s new thrust area is the TOP revolution. The Union Budget 2018-2019 launched a scheme called Operation Greens with an outlay of Rs 500 crore. The scheme’s objective was to stabilise the supply of TOP crops and control its price volatility. A report suggests that till May 2023, almost 46 projects worth around Rs 2,300 crore were under various stages of implementation and they had an eligible grant of around Rs 571 crore.
India’s tomato economy
There are more than 15,000 varieties of tomatoes in the world, out of which more than 1,000 varieties of tomatoes are cultivated in India. However, only a few are commercially available and others are consumed locally. Several seed companies have bred the tomatoes further and have brought out new varieties with specific attributes. Most of the varieties cultivated in India are hybrid types. Hybrid seeds make it vulnerable to pest and virus attacks, as has been observed in Karnataka this year.
It is the third most important crop in India after potato and onion. India is the second-largest producer of tomatoes in the world. Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Odisha, West Bengal, Bihar, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh are the major tomato producing states in India. These states account for about 90 per cent of total tomato production in the country. Tomato production in India in 2018-19 was estimated to be 193.97 lakh tonnes — eight per cent higher than the production compared to the preceding year. At present, the production figures have crossed 20 million tonnes. As the largest producer of tomatoes in the world, China contributes about 34.75 per cent of the world’s total tomato production. India contributes to 10 per cent of the world’s total tomato production with an overall yield of over 20 million tonnes
Andhra Pradesh contributes to 20 per cent of total tomato production in India. Madhya Pradesh is the second-largest producer of tomatoes, and contributes to 12 per cent of total production. Karnataka is the third-largest producer, and contributes to 10 per cent of total tomato production in India, followed by Gujarat, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, and Tamil Nadu.
More food more hunger
The irony is that India ranks 109th in the Global Hunger Index though it is one of the world’s largest producers of food grains, vegetables, fruits and poultry items. There is a saying India grows more food, wastes more, while more go hungry.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that more than 40 per cent of food produced is wasted in India, and its cost could be as high as USD 14 billion (12.42 billion Euro) every year. It is argued that the issue of food is political in India, and its shortage can lead to public outcry and political setbacks. So, conventionally, governments have been playing it safe rather than pragmatic.
A study by ICAR revealed that the average range of losses altogether for food grains, oilseeds, and fruits & vegetables were found to be 4.65 per cent to 15.88 per cent. In cereals, losses were estimated to be in the range of 4.65 per cent to 5.99 per cent; pulses 6.36 per cent to 8.41 per cent; oil seeds 3.08 per cent to 9.96 per cent; and fruits and vegetables 4.58 per cent to 15.88 per cent. In addition to lack of proper infrastructure for food preservation and storage, lack of purchasing power of millions of hungry Indians makes the situation worse.
Lack of purchasing power of the domestic consumers compels farmers to look for export markets for agricultural produce. The government has announced several changes to improve opportunities in the fruits and vegetables industry and encourage exports. Some of these reforms are listed below:
* 100 per cent Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) permitted for the food processing sector:
The government had approved 100 per cent FDI under the automatic route in the food processing sector. The intention was to make the FDI policy more investor friendly and remove the policy blockages hampering the investment inflows into the industry and the country.
* Agriculture Export Policy (AEP):
The Government of India released its Agriculture Export Policy in 2018, emphasising agriculture export-oriented production, export promotion, greater farmer realisation, and synchronisation with government policies and programmes. The AEP places importance on farmer-focused mobile applications. During the implementation of AEP, considerable progress has been made in giving Farmer-Producer Organisations (FPOs) and farmers a stake in the export of their produce. Due to the need to serve foreign markets, direct connectivity of FPOs/farmers with the export market has boosted farmers’ incomes and led to better farming practices.
Report suggests that in 2022, shipments abroad of vegetables increased by 37 per cent, rising for the second year in a row after two years of decline. In general, total exports indicated a tangible expansion from 2012 to 2022. Its volume increased at an average annual rate of +3.7 per cent over the last decade. Based on 2022 figures, exports increased by +38.8 per cent against 2020 indices. The most prominent rate of growth was recorded in 2013, with an increase of 60 per cent against the previous year. As a result, the exports reached the peak. From 2014 to 2022, the growth of the exports remained at a somewhat lower figure
Onions, mixed vegetables, potatoes, tomatoes, and green chilly contribute largely to the vegetable export basket. Major destinations for the Indian fresh fruits and vegetables are Bangladesh, UAE, Nepal, the Netherlands, the UK among others. This shows that India’s fresh fruits and vegetables exports have largely been to neighbouring countries or those that are nearby. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, global fruit and vegetable trade has more than doubled between 2000 and 2018. India’s Operation Green scheme is aimed at preparing the major vegetable exporters to tap this growing market.
Sudden spike in tomato prices does not look normal though various reasons have been cited. Is the field for introduction of GM tomatoes being prepared now? That possibility cannot be ruled out.
Food basket is shrinking
Over a decade ago, in 2012, the Down to Earth (DTE) magazine flagged the issue of the shrinking food basket of Indian citizens. They reminded us saying that local fruits and veggies hold the key to food, nutritional security. There are a variety of nutritious and tasty foods that grow in India but these benefit only a few — those who live in areas where these plants grow. The problem is that most of the local foods cannot be stored, and technologies to preserve and store them have not been developed. This has resulted in a shift to foods like cereals and pulses which may not be as nutritious but can be stored easily, wrote DTE. It is rightly pointed out that local foods are rarely a subject of research. In the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research in Varanasi, the crops that are being studied for increasing yields or improving varieties are tomato, chillies, brinjal, cucumber, bottle gourd, bitter gourd, okra, muskmelon, pumpkin and pea. These vegetables are not representative of India’s biodiversity. It is heartening to know that with tomato price hovering between Rs 90 and Rs 120 per kg, residents of Karnataka have taken to reducing the number of tomatoes used in dishes, using tamarind or amchur powder as a flavour substitute.
In a briefing paper titled, ‘Safeguarding and Using Fruit and Vegetable Biodiversity,’ by van Zonneveld et al, submitted at the UN Food Systems Summit 2021, the authors suggested to create a global team of experts from different sectors and disciplines, and launch an initiative under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture to better conserve, monitor, and understand the diversity of our fruit and vegetable crops.
The authors also observed that fruits and vegetables provide nutrition and food security, income-generating opportunities, ecosystem services, and contribute to cultural identities. Protecting these species — and by extension, our ability to nourish ourselves — demands urgent action.
Locally available traditional vegetables are the only solution to cope with the sudden market disruptions of basic foods controlled by the corporate lobby. Many fruit and vegetable species in food production systems contributing essential nutrients to human diets are under
threat from land use, climate change and human apathy. Declining biodiversity limits options for a sustainable, healthy food supply. Traditional local food ecosystem which served the world for generations must be revived at the earliest.
Views expressed are personal