Winning the Race Against Time: Getting Nutritious Tomatoes from Farm to Plate
The tomato is one of the most important vegetables in the world. It contains essential vitamins and minerals and is also a key source of lycopene, which has anti-oxidant properties and can help protect against heart disease and cancer. Yet in many developing countries, getting fresh healthy produce such as the tomato from the field to consumer markets is a challenging race against time.
India is one of the top three tomato-producing countries, with nearly 184 million tons of the global amount of 223 million tons produced in 2016.1 Despite a high volume of production, nearly 40 percent of all tomatoes grown in India are lost on the farm and along the supply chain to the market, due to pests, the lack of cold storage and inadequate road systems.2 These losses mean a loss of potential income for farmers and tomato transporters, lost nutritional value for consumers, along with higher prices and wasted water, soil and crop nutrients.
Plant breeders are now using conventional breeding techniques along with advanced phenotyping breeding technologies to improve the tomato plant for producers, consumers and the entire agricultural value chain. Phenotyping involves assessing the physical characteristics of an organism resulting from genetics, environment and crop management; new precision phenotyping technologies can rapidly assess thousands of breeding lines over time to help breeders select plants that can adapt to different challenges.
To improve tomato shelf-life and the firmness required to make the journey to market in developing countries like India, tomato breeders from The Monsanto Company (acquired by Bayer AG in June 2018) evaluated more than 500 tomato cultivars for transportability and shelf-life. Over the two-year research period, breeders developed tomato hybrids that featured a 12 to 14-day shelf-life, (an improvement over the five to seven-day period within which tomatoes typically spoil). These hybrids also yield 20 percent more fruit, have greater adaptability to heat stress, and appeal to consumers with an attractive red color. Additional tomato traits are in the research pipeline, to address consumer demand for flavor, nutrition and culinary appeal.
While the government of India has begun to incentivize investments in cold storage, investments that will address the large needs and wide array of agriculture products across India will require several years. In the short term, genetic improvements in tomato shelf-life will complement improvements in cold storage and will prevent food loss while providing more consumers with healthy affordable food.
- FAOSTAT 2016 Data.
- Hegazy, Rashad, 2013. Post-harvest Situation and Losses in India. Accessed online at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/301770292_Post-harvest_Situation_and_Losses_in_India