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Tomatoes in Turmoil: India’s Climate Challenge

Scott Patterson • February 21st, 2024.

Tomato Harvest

Tomatoes originated in South America, but they have spread to all parts of the world. Where you live will likely determine how you eat them. In Italy, tomatoes are used to make red sauce, in France for ratatouille, in Mexico for salsa, in Argentina they are stuffed, in northern Africa they are used in a poached eggs dish, and in India they are used in a chutney or for masala. Tomatoes were not always part of Indian culture, but they are now an important ingredient in many Indian dishes.

Tomatoes in India

As the second largest producer of tomatoes, India is what is known as a fresh tomato consuming market. This means it is a market in which tomatoes are grown to meet domestic demand and are not necessarily grown for export or to be processed. Because of this, the supply chain is not as developed as in other countries. In 2020, India processed less than 1% of its tomato harvest and while this number has likely increased, there is still a significant potential for more processing, which could ultimately create more resilience in the supply chain and reduce the impact of extreme weather on future tomato harvests and pricing for consumers.

Tomato Harvest in India

The Tomato Harvest in 2023

India has two main harvests each year, which are defined by the start and end of the monsoon season. During the Rabi, seeds are planted in November and December and harvested from April to early June. During the Kharif, seeds are sown at the start of the monsoon in June and harvested in October and November. The monsoon season normally begins on the 1st of June in Kerala in the southern part of the country and reaches Punjab in the north by the 30th of June.

In 2023, a heat wave hit most of India in February, which is normally one of the cooler months in the year. This was followed by heavy rain and flooding for some areas in March and April, and then heat waves in the eastern areas by May and June. The monsoon started a week later for southern India. By the time the monsoon reached the northern areas, it was almost ten days too slow. This delay led to extreme heat and dry conditions, especially in the north and east.

For tomatoes, the wild weather was a recipe for disaster. After the Kharif harvest in the fall, tomato prices normally fall in the winter season to their lowest point. Some years, these prices drop so low that farmers end up destroying their tomato harvest by dumping it into the road. This is because the cost of growing and transporting the tomatoes is more than the price they will be paid. This scenario developed with the Rabi harvest in 2023, as tomatoes suffered from fungal disease caused by a combination of extreme heat and heavy rain. Flooding also prevented farmers from bringing their tomatoes to the market.

In the hot months of May and June and before the height of monsoon season, the price of tomatoes normally increases as the supply falls. This usually occurs between the Rabi and Kharif harvests. The price of tomatoes peaks in July in a normal year.

In 2023, there was a shortage of tomatoes after the Rabi harvest, due to a delay in the monsoon and the endless cycle of extreme weather. This led prices to surge to a point 400% higher than they were at the low point when farmers were destroying their tomatoes. This high price led many restaurants, including major fast food chains, to stop putting tomatoes on sandwiches. Many families were unable to afford tomatoes during this time. Prices decreased again towards the end of the monsoon and ahead of the impending Kharif harvest.

Why was the weather in 2023 so volatile?

While La Niña is generally good for India’s crops, El Niño is not. On top of the El Niño, a positive phase of the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) developed. The IOD is defined as colder than normal water in the eastern Indian Ocean and warmer than normal in the western. The combination of a weakening La Niña, a developing +IOD, and a developing strong El Niño likely all led to the extreme swings in the weather from wet to hot and the delay in the monsoon season.

Positive Indian Dipole and El Nino affecting water temperatures in India

How will 2024 be different than last year?

While 2024 will likely be different, there is still plenty of potential for extreme weather. The El Niño is weakening, but will continue to have a presence through the start of the monsoon. This means another slow start and a potentially drier monsoon season will be possible again. In the second half of the year, the timing of how fast a La Niña returns may have a significant bearing on if the monsoon can behave more normally before the monsoon ends. The one big difference is the +IOD will not be active this season, as the IOD weakened in December 2023 and will be in a neutral state through 2024.

In Summary

While all eyes in India will be focused on the expected start of the monsoon season, there should also be an equal focus on the end of the El Niño. The El Niño will be the primary driver of extreme weather and influence on regional and local weather patterns. Beyond 2024, climate change will continue to have a big impact on air and ocean temperatures, both of which directly tie into the success or failure of the tomato harvests.

At ClimateAi, we are developing climate intelligence insights for scenarios similar to those facing India now and decades in the future. Contact us for more details about how your supply chain can become more climate resilient using AI-driven insights.

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