The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sour taste of tomato economics

New Delhi, June 25: In shelling out Rs 45 for a kilo of tomatoes, the capital’s consumers are merely getting a taste of tomato economics in Indian summers.

But they’re also paying for their reluctance to tune their palates to the season, say agricultural experts who’re not surprised by the rise in retail prices of tomatoes.

The tomato plant grows best in mild weather and production drops during summer. “Tomato prices always go up in these months,” said Rajashekhar Hosamani, head of the vegetables division at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Dharwad, Karnataka.

Farmers in Maharashtra and Karnataka continue to cultivate tomatoes during summer primarily for the perennially tomato-hungry cities, the capital included.

“People here have become used to tomatoes round the year,” said a senior scientist at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in Delhi. “But in many parts of the country, it’s treated as a seasonal vegetable and people restrict its use.”

“In parts of eastern India, tomatoes are grown in mild winters and are traditionally viewed as a winter vegetable just as capsicum or French beans,” he said.

The aversion among consumers in the capital to look away from tomatoes during summer has pushed their retail price to such high levels this year that the government has stepped in with retail outlets for subsidised tomatoes at wholesale markets.

The retail price has shot up from about Rs 20 to 24 a month ago to nearly Rs 45 this week. Agricultural experts say while the rise in price in summer is expected, the quantum of the rise this year is unusual.

In Calcutta, tomatoes now cost between Rs 18 and Rs 30 a kg. Around this time last year, it was Rs 15-16 a kg.

“We haven’t had tomato failure from adverse weather or pests this year. Yet the prices have become very high,” said Hosamani in Dharwad, where the price has touched Rs 20 a kilo despite it being a tomato-growing zone.

“I attribute this to traders who sense a high demand and low supply,” Hosamani said.

An expert at the research institute said it was unlikely that tomatoes were being hoarded for long. “Most wholesale cold-storage systems in India are designed to store potatoes at 1 degree Celsius. Tomatoes need to be stored at 8 degrees. Hoarders are unlikely to have dual temperature storage systems.”

But vegetable crop experts predict the high prices will drop within weeks.

“We’re actually going to see a peak tomato season soon,” Hosamani said. “During August, prices in Dharwad drop to Re 1 a kg. But how much of tomatoes can people eat' The condition of the farmers then becomes pitiable.”

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