Friday, July 31, 2009

Tomato Blight: Organic produce in peril

This year’s tomato blight in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions has arrived earlier than ever before and is predicted to destroy acres of tomato plants.  Organic farmers, unfortunately, will be the hardest hit.

The blight, often referred to as the Late Blight, is a very infectious pathogen that spreads rapidly among tomato plants. Late Blight has been connected to the potato blight that wiped out most of Ireland’s potatoes during the famous potato famine. The tomato and potato blights have been known to jump from one species to another, so tomato farmers that also grow potatoes could be hit twice.

This year, farmers are extremely concerned about their tomato crops, especially because tomatoes remain one of the most profitable of typical produce grown. Prices, typically around $15 to $20 a case wholesale, are expected to reach prices around $40 a case.

Prices this high could mean that the once-reasonable tomato salad at a restaurant will become the most expensive and in-demand item.

Non-organic farms, obviously, have the option of spraying synthetic fungicides for a chance to save the crops. Organic farmers, on the other hand, are seriously concerned about this year’s crop because infected tomatoes must be destroyed before the blight can spread to healthy plants. Although the late blight is always to be expected during late summer, this year’s early arrival is definite cause for extra concern.

Will this be a common occurrence in years to come? Has the overuse of fungicides created a Late Blight superpathogen that will eventually wipe out the tomato species?

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