Maharashtra's tomato crop hit hard by infections; 25,000 farmers face losses in crores

Updated: May 23, 2020, 10:00 IST | Vinod Kumar Menon | Mumbai

25,000 tomato farmers in the three affected districts say their losses run into crores; farm produce is not covered by insurance

Tomato farmers in the three affected districts say their losses run into crores
Tomato farmers in the three affected districts say their losses run into crores

It has been a double blow for farmers in Maharashtra. Many were not able to sell their produce during the lockdown, and now, nearly 25,000 farmers cultivating tomatoes in Satara, Ahmednagar and Pune, are facing losses in crores due to infections that have struck the crop and affected produce. Most of them supply to Mumbai and markets around the state and to South Asian countries.

Ajit Korde, 32, one of the whistleblowers of the disease from Mirewadi, Satara district, said that out of 70 acres of farmland that he owns, he cultivated tomatoes on 1.5 acres. Korde added last season, he had cultivated tomatoes on almost 2.75 acres and sold the produce for an average price of R18 per kg. He made few lakhs of rupees as profit during the peak season between February-June 2019.

Diseased produce thrown

However this season, after buying nearly 10,000 tomato plants from a nursery (each plant at Re 1), he found the tomatoes were getting discoloured. Korde said, "Sometime after April 20, I saw the tomatoes were turning greenish yellow and growing deformed. They felt spongy. Nearly 20 to 25 tonnes of my produce, 60 per cent, was wasted and the remaining I sold for as little as R2.50 per kg."

Korde immediately brought the matter to the notice of other farmers and research scientists from the Mahatma Phule Krishi Vidyapeeth (MPKV) University, Rahuri, Ahmednagar and district agricultural officials. A team of scientists collected samples on May 14, which were sent to the ICAR-Indian Institute of Horticultural Research's (IIHR) Bengaluru laboratory.

 Ajit Korde, a farmer from Satara, said he had to throw away nearly 25 tonnes of his diseased produc
Ajit Korde, a farmer from Satara, said he had to throw away nearly 25 tonnes of his diseased produce

The situation is similar for other farmers who planted tomatoes. Kiran Waman from Sangamner, Ahmednagar, who suffered losses worth R3 lakh said, "It is unfortunate that all our efforts have gone in vain. First it was due to the lockdown and now it is the virus attack on our produce."

"We have to bear all losses, as there is no insurance cover for vegetable growers. We are requesting the state government to intervene in the matter and consider extending insurance cover to even vegetable growers," said Korde.

'Don't grow tomatoes'

Dr Manish Sushir, senior research assistant, Regional Wheat Rust Research Station, Mahableshwar, and his team visited the affected farms. He said, "We could ascertain that the plants were infected by viruses." Sushir said there were similar complaints about tomatoes from Pune, Ahmednagar and Satara. He said the virus attack was seen on a large scale for the first time in Maharashtra. Similar virus damage was seen in tomato farms in Israel way back in 2014 and other European countries.

When asked about remedial measures, Sushir said, "We cannot do anything now, since extensive damage has happened. The farmers must opt for rotational crops from next season and not grow tomatoes of any family breed, to avoid similar virus attack. To avoid any sucking pest, it is important that from the time of sowing to growing of plants, insecticides are sprayed."

'Virus is not COVID-19'

Interestingly, the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR), Delhi also found that the rumour of the virus being linked to COVID-19 by some local farmers is baseless.

Dr Krishna Reddy, ICAR-IIHR, said the tomato crops were infected by a combination of two to three viruses
Dr Krishna Reddy, ICAR-IIHR, said the tomato crops were infected by a combination of two to three viruses 

Dr Anand Kumar Singh, Deputy Director General, Horticulture Sciences at ICAR said, "The samples were tested in our ICAR-Bengaluru laboratory, where using ELISA, electron microscope, and Polymerase Chain Reaction test (PCR) on the leaves and tomatoes affected, we have ruled out that the viruses are COVID-19."

Dr Singh further added, "The crops were affected by viruses which are occasionally found in tomato crops. We presume that the crops were infected due to high temperature and high dosage of nitrogen-based fertilisers."

Dr Krishna Reddy, Head of the department, Division of Crop Protection, ICAR-IIHR, Bangalore, said, "We have tested the samples of leaves and tomatoes received from Satara and Ahmednagar districts and found them to be infected by a combination of two to three viruses – cucumber mosaic virus, groundnut bud necrosis virus and tomato chlorosis virus. These are common viruses but seen in large numbers for the first time, adversely impacting the crops in three districts."

"These viruses are transmitted through white fly, aphids and thrips, which are small insects that feed on plants and one of the factors for the extensive spread could be environmental issues. The viruses also affect crops like green chilli, capsicum, beans etc," he added.

When asked about corrective measures, Dr Reddy said, "We have already submitted our report on Thursday to the Department of Agriculture, Maharashtra and also MPKV University, Rahuri, and they will come up with suggestive measures to tackle the issue."

Both farmers growing tomatoes and Reddy, clarified that plant virus never affects human, and that the tomatoes are fit for human consumption. Dr Anand Kumar added Maharashtra produces 23 million tonnes of tomatoes, but they are supplied in large numbers from Andhrapradesh, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh etc

'Findings unacceptable'

Korde said they were not satisfied with the report. He said, "For us, farming is like looking after a newborn and we put our soul and effort in nurturing our farms. But the report blames farmers and nursery operators, which is unfair. Moreover, we have been growing tomatoes for decades and have been using similar practices for years, and had never faced such a large viral attack on our crops."

Korde added, "In the report, no effort seems to have been taken to find if the seeds were of inferior quality or infected, giving a clean chit to the companies marketing them."

The farmers also claimed that none of the seed companies' representatives or senior officials have visited them.

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