Shira Zimmerman

Who Moved My Tomato?

Can agricultural technology bring down the price of must-have-for-salad produce?
Tomatoes for sale in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, September 2012 (photo credit: Oren Nahshon/Flash90)
Tomatoes for sale in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, September 2012 (photo credit: Oren Nahshon/Flash90)

Oh, the irony: The nation that invented the cherry tomato, made the most technological advances in the production of tomatoes in the 20th century, and is at the forefront of agricultural technology as a whole suffered a tomato shortage in the past month. Not being able to buy fresh tomatoes for a classic Middle Eastern salad got to Israelis right where they live — in the gut!

Will the current tomato crisis be remembered like the cottage cheese protest in the summer of 2011? Tomato prices skyrocketed, so much so that one leading supermarket chain posted a sign on empty tomato bins that due to the high prices, they would not sell tomatoes.

Articles on food security or the looming global food crisis generally state that by 2050 we will need to produce enough food to feed 9.7 billion people (UN Population Division). Recently, I felt we got a “taste” (so to speak) of what the actual crisis could look like.

It’s a scary prospect when consumers in developed countries such as Israel, where produce and foodstuffs are usually plentiful, don’t have access to basic foods they buy without a thought or care.

Although some journalists and experts suggested that forward-looking policies and better government management could solve the current food shortages in Israel, it is shortsighted to ignore other factors that caused the lack of produce:

  • Unseasonably hot temperatures in August wreaked havoc on the summer tomato crop. The high temperatures (even at night) caused a rampant virus that destroyed a large percentage of the crop.
  • Last winter was unusually cold and affected areas that do not typically get frost or snow. This extra cold weather hurt the mango crop and is the primary reason why there are fewer and smaller mangos on the shelves.
  • The holiday period for Jews and Muslims in September placed a great demand for food.

Farming is a risky proposition at the best of times. Changing climate conditions, availability of land and water resources, and thorny governmental policies force many farmers to leave the “field” and play a significant role in the food production equation. A win-win situation where farmers can sell for a fair price and consumers can buy at a fair price is one way to make sure productivity meets demand. This can be controlled via sound governmental policies and market intervention. By not addressing these issues to ensure that demand does not exceed supply, the situation may lead to soaring prices and possibly to social unrest — which often accompanies food insecurity.

In September 2015, the UN devised the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In the framework of its goals, the second is “to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.” Optimal utilization of agricultural land and management of water are crucial factors in achieving food security.

Agriculture is now undergoing a technology revolution evident in the rise in agritech investment in the last two years, as well as the inclusion of agriculture in many tech competitions and platforms. Agriculturalists and technologists are working together to find solutions for problems that farmers have always struggled with – land and water resources and the unpredictability of the weather.

Will our food of the future be grown in climate-controlled and robot-managed indoor farms? Will we as citizens take much more responsibility for growing and producing our own food using technologies optimized for home-grown hydroponic agriculture? Will cities and communities initiate urban ag projects, utilizing spaces like rooftops to grow vegetables?

Will we be able to meet the challenges of global food production in this century and avert a major crisis? Some entrepreneurs are giving it their best shot.

About the Author
Shira Zimmerman works as a marketing communications consultant for The Trendlines Group. She is originally South African and has lived in the Galilee for 26 years.
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