Optimizing, finetuning and increasing control over processes are typical for our time. Companies are expanding, governments gain more and more information about their citizens and we continuously communicate through screens. You can have your own opinion in this matter, but it hardly makes a difference. This is our daily reality; this is how the world evolves. If we don’t make changes, this is the way we will continue to develop.
Even in the worldwide horticultural sector these trends are not just passing by. I have been an entrepreneur in this sector for over 45 years and have seen the average operating surface expanded with about 20 times it’s size. In this same period, the production of every square meter for a product like tomatoes, have increased to 4 times its size while we hardly changed anything in our cost calculations. I am certain however, that the costs of a kilo of vine tomatoes, must have been higher about 25 years ago. The costs of our livelihood have more than doubled during these same years. A story of efficiency and progress continues, but everything has its downside.
For the last 2 to 3 years, we have been confronted with viruses in various areas.
COVID-19 has shown the world that we don’t always have everything under control and that growth knows its boundaries. Within the international tomato cultivation, the ‘Tomato Brown Rugose Fruit Virus’, has left a deep impression. In both cases we are confronted with a crisis of which I couldn’t have imagined the extend and impact about five years ago.
Development of the Tomato Brown Rugose Fruit Virus
This virus was first detected in 2015 within the Middle East and has rapidly expanded all over the world ever since. The first reports on the virus in Mexico were in 2018, soon followed by Europe including Belgium and The Netherlands. Almost simultaneously there were alerts from the US and Canada. In a timeframe of approximately four years, this highly infectious virus has spread worldwide within the cultivation of tomatoes. The damage is significant. Especially large-scale cultivation with extensive year-round growth, seem to suffer. Reductions of 20% off the yearly production form no exception. Another problem is the loss of quality among the products. The virus can manifest on all nightshades. Contamination of peppers and eggplant have been reported as well. It seems however, that the damage on these crops is less disastrous than tomato crops.
Highly contagious and hard to combat
When a greenhouse is infected with TOBRUFV, the virus spreads rapidly. It is transmitted through contact. Every activity within the greenhouse, every employee, means of transportation or insect can spread the virus from diseased to healthy crops.
When a crop has been infected the growth stagnates. Liquid spots often appear within the leaves and especially with high temperatures and sun an incineration of the crops may stop the entire growth of the plant. Another sign is an unevenly and insufficiently coloring of the fruits, which can affect the eventual taste.
When a company is infected, it is very difficult to eliminate the disease and almost impossible to keep the tomato cultivation, producing within the next season (year). The past has shown us that resistant breeds or vaccines alone are insufficient.
What makes our crops so vulnerable?
Our top productions and giant greenhouses are the answer to this question. An increase of 400% in the production of tomatoes in the past fifty years is significant. Because of our highly efficient production there is not a grain of fat left on the plant, which converts all energy towards taste and fruits. You will find an average of 300.000 to 400.000 plants within a greenhouse of 10 hectare. When a virus infection appears, this will rapidly spread within the entire greenhouse. Comparing to one infection on 1 hectare, we only lose 10% of the plants, which means compartmentalization to smaller units of crops, reduces risks. We must increase the resilience and resistance of our crops to create a natural buffer. This way the balance within the crops can naturally be restored. Extra buffers and compartments increase the cost, for a buffer is energy, a fuel that isn’t transformed into production and cannot be harvested. A buffer takes space and costs money, which means the price of producing the crops will increase.
Why is this virus so persistent?
What is a virus exactly? Wikipedia states:
“A virus is a small part of organic material that can exclusively multiply within the cells of living creatures. When a virus penetrates a living cell, this cell that we call the host cell, will produce thousands of copies of the original virus. Viruses infect all forms of life. From animals and plants to microorganisms. They exist in all eco systems and are very numerous in soil, air and water.”
What we can learn from this definition is that viruses are natural. They exist in nature extensively and will never disappear. Eliminating a virus with hygienic measures and quarantine can work temporarily at best. The virus will remain to be present within the ecosystem. The only logical weapon towards a virus would be resilience. There is no doubt that we will regularly be confronted with new mutinies among people, animals and plants. We know all about that in horticulture. I cannot name any type of vegetation, entirely immune for viruses.
This askes for increased attention on operational reliability, which means ennoblement of resistant species and creating effective vaccines. Creating a closed production chain and compartmentalization among stricter hygienic measures will help to keep diseases and plagues at a save distance whenever possible.
From crisis to strength
A new virus regularly results in a crisis. Even the words have a similar sound, both in English as in Dutch. In the Chinese language a crisis is also described as ‘Wu wei’, which basically means; an attempt by nature to restore balance.
The immense impact of the virus shows me that our system is insignificantly resistant and easily unbalanced.
A healthy future
In a complete overview you can say that we have focused so much on efficiency and optimization, that we have violated the safety and continuity of our businesses and society.
Do we choose to optimize our profit, decrease our costs and expansion of our businesses or would the best choice be continuity, safety, and sustainability in our operational management?
In what way can you price your product costs properly and responsively?
‘Did you create a sufficiently resilient and sustainable balance in your crops and business model?’