Dan Barber had a column in the new york times on Saturday addressing the major attack of tomato blight in the northeast this summer. Late Blight is a fungal disease that attacks tomatoes and potatoes (edit: Maybe also eggplants? They’re all pretty closely related). When potato harvests fail, people starve (see: Irish Potato famine). With tomato harvests fail… the price of tomatoes goes up and people eat less tomatoes. But I have a serious point to make so please keep reading.
But though it’s easy to be flippant about how little our society depends on tomatoes to survive, plant pathogen outbreaks like this one are also sobering. First, while the impact on the consumer is small, paying somewhat more for a tomato or perhaps eating an artichoke with dinner instead, the impact on the farmers who grow the tomatoes is drastic. A loss of 50% of a tomato crop, even balanced with a 20% rise is tomato prices means that farmer will only see 60% if the money he’d been counting on to pay the bills, prepare for next years crop and hopefully support his family.*
The second reason we should be concerned about and pay attention to this year’s lost tomato harvest is underlying issues it reveals about the impact the public’s perception of where food comes from is having on farming.
Jack Algiere, head vegetable farmer at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture (where I have a restaurant that purchases from the farm), lost more than half his field tomatoes in three days. Other organic farmers were forced to make a brutal choice: spray their tomato plants with fungicides, and lose organic certification, or watch the crop disappear.
There are two interlocking points to be made here. First that farmers could be saving more of their crop with fungicides, but are reluctant to do so because of the loss of organic certification. The loss of the certification is no small concern to a farmer, as with it his or her crops will sell for more to a public that disparages the trappings of conventional agriculture. In order to obtain the certification the farmland must be managed according to organic practices for several years** so it’s possible that these farmers are faced with the loss of the additional income they gain with organic certification for three years if they take the necessary steps to save the majority of their tomatoes this year.
So there it is, clean and simple, a choice between organic practices that have proven useless against this disease, and chemicals that can save most of the crop. And for this year it really is a simple binary choice. But it didn’t have to be that way. Because there are already resistant varieties of tomato.
The food community has a role to play, too — by taking another look at plant-breeding programs, another major fixture of our nation’s land-grant universities, and their efforts to develop new varieties of fruits and vegetables. To many advocates of sustainability, science, when it’s applied to agriculture, is considered suspect, a violation of the slow food aesthetic… includes the development of plants with natural resistance to blight and other diseases — plants like the Mountain Magic tomato, an experimental variety from Cornell that the Stone Barns Center is testing in a field trial. So far there’s been no evidence of disease in these plants, while more than 70 percent of the heirloom varieties of tomatoes have succumbed to the pathogen.
And in this case these lines weren’t even produced with genetic engineering but conventional breeding techniques. And I have to applaud the stand Dan takes here. There’s a real element that wants science entirely out of food, yet it is through biology and plant breeding that we can create more disease and pest resistant plants. Plants that can survive with less water, or require less fertilizer (whether synthetic or animal excrement). Because in the end, no one, not the farmers, not the consumers, not even the agronomists, plant breeders or biologists is pro-pesticide. Just as pro-choice and pro-life politicians can find common ground on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies, so too should scientists and the organic/slow food movement be able to agree that technologies that allow plants to resist pests and infections on their own and consequently reduce the spraying of chemicals.
*Vegetable crops may well be worse in this regard since demand is more elastic. As prices rise, purchasers of tomatoes can easily switch to other vegetables, or simply do without. Farmers of staple crops (things like rice, wheat, corn and potatoes) can at least console themselves with the knowledge that the food they produce would be far harder to simple do without. Therefore demand for staple crops is less elastic, which means if supply decreases, prices will go up more. Put another way, prices have to be much higher before enough people do without bread or rice (and do without is definitely a euphemism here. What is means is people can no longer afford the food they need to survive.), whereas something like a tomato or banana be substituted or done without much more easily.
**The e. coli spinach outbreak of a couple of years ago was traced to a farm in the interim period where the food was grown according to organic practices but sold as conventional food.