Last year it was wheat, then sugar. This year, it is tomatoes.
As weather patterns grow erratic — rainfall too heavy and often out of sync with farming calendars, and heat cycles beginning earlier and breaking records — food shortages are one of the many ways India is reeling from climate change.
Supplies have been shrinking, and prices shooting up — in the case of tomatoes, at least a fivefold increase between May and mid-July according to official figures, and even a steeper spike based on consumer accounts. The government has been forced to take emergency measures, curbing exports and injecting subsidized supplies to the market to reduce the shock on the world’s most populous nation.
In recent weeks, families have been rationing their intake of tomatoes, which are fundamental to the Indian diet. They’re omitting tomatoes from salads, keeping the few they can afford for flavoring the main dish. Some, out of fear of even higher prices, have been stocking tomatoes as purée in their freezers. Restaurants have been removing tomato-heavy items from their menus or hiking the prices. McDonald’s dropped tomatoes from its burgers in large parts of northern and eastern India.
Tomatoes have even found their way to the middle of India’s raucous, and increasingly polarized, politics. A prominent leader of the ruling Hindu nationalist party, Himanta Biswa Sarma, blamed the country’s Muslims for the price rise. A shopkeeper in the Varanasi district of Uttar Pradesh, a supporter of an opposition party, hired in-uniform bouncers to guard his small tomato supply.
“Earlier, we would consume about two or three kilos of tomatoes a week in our family of five,” said Neeta Agarwal, a software developer who was out shopping one recent evening in east Delhi. “Now we are only consuming half a kilo per week.”
In some areas, prices have skyrocketed from 30 rupees per kilogram, or roughly 13 cents a pound, to more than 200 rupees.
“We have stopped eating tomatoes in salad,” Ms. Agarwal added, “and we are not making any tomato-based vegetable dishes. We are only using tomatoes for little base sauce for lentils and curries.”
India, like much of South Asia, is on the front lines of climate change. Extreme weather events are testing the resilience the country has tried to build in recent decades to reduce the loss of life to extreme poverty and disease. Floods and droughts continue to displace a large number of people. Agriculture, which provides a living to more than half the population, was already struggling to be profitable because of a lack of crop diversity and unreliable market arrangements that have fueled farmer debt, suicides and protest. The increasing unpredictability of climate patterns and the constant threat of disastrous events has made things worse.
But nowhere is India’s vulnerability to climate change felt more pointedly than in food security. Although the country has elevated hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in recent decades, analysts say a large slice of India’s population of 1.4 billion remains just above the borderline, vulnerable to any shock.
In a report last year, the United Nations noted the increase in extreme weather events in South Asia, saying that they “will have an adverse impact on food availability and prices.”
India’s agriculture ministry told the country’s parliament earlier this year that “climate change is projected to reduce wheat yield by 19.3 percent in 2050 and 40 percent in 2080,” while corn yields could drop by as much as 18 to 23 percent in the same period.
Just how much vigilance food security requires was demonstrated last year.
At the beginning of the year, the government announced that it would expand exports to help countries struggling with wheat shortages because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But soon after, it quietly reversed the decision to the other extreme — curbing even earlier levels of exports.
The reason: The wheat harvest was ruined by extreme weather patterns. Untimely rainfall flooded the fields, and then extreme heat dried up the grain. The result was at least a 3.5 percent drop in the yield, with some parts of the country experiencing as sharp a drop as 15 percent. As a precaution, when the sugar cane harvest also faced a similar drop, the government curbed sugar exports too.
“We have to foresee and plan for the impact of climate change on food production,” said Devinder Sharma, an independent agriculture economist. “We should maintain adequate food stock for at least two years because any season could go wrong.”
The tomato shortage, farmers and traders say, is a result of a supply and demand disruption in the market, followed by extreme weather events.
The previous tomato harvest was such a bumper crop that many farmers had no takers. Tomatoes rotted in fields, as the cheap prices in the market did not even justify shipping costs.
That discouraged some farmers from growing tomatoes for the current harvest.
What would have been a smaller harvest was then made worse by extreme heat in March and April, followed by flooding in recent weeks that not only destroyed fields but also wiped away bridges and blocked roads in parts of northern India.
In recent weeks, as tomato prices became a dominant issue, the Indian government injected as much as 330 tons of tomatoes — first at the subsidized price of 90 rupees a kilogram and then at 70 rupees per kilogram — into the market.
“When farmers were suffering, no government help came forward,” said Yogesh Rayate, a tomato farmer in Nashik district of Maharashtra, in the country’s west. “But when urban consumers are suffering then there is a lot of hue and cry.”