Sauce, ketchup and Indian tomato prices
They say the prices are cyclical, like they are for all vegetables. They say India grows enough vegetables to provide for our growing population and we have enough surplus to export. Well, if that’s so, then why does a kilo of tomatoes today cost fifty rupees? A few phone calls and visits to local grocery shops (not the supermarkets) confirmed that today, in Bangalore, Mumbai and New Delhi, tomatoes sold for Rs 45 to Rs 55 a kilo.
Why are our staple vegetables experiencing such price spikes so frequently (the big onion panic is not two months old)? Here’s what the official numbers look like, from the Ministry of Agriculture, Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Retail Price Monitoring System. This collects prices of food staples every week from 87 urban centres in all 35 states and union territories, and I have used this quite comprehensive data series to examine the ups and downs of the price of the tomato.
The chart above illustrates the price of a kilo of tomatoes in India’s urban centres between the first week of July 2010 and the third week of October 2013 – tomato prices have been recorded for 59 urban centres over 173 weeks. To simplify what is otherwise a maniacal tangle of individual threads (see chart below) I have taken a median price, and urban price at the 80th and 20th percentiles, which together describe the overall movement and variation well enough. The cycles are indeed visible – they are roughly 40 weeks long.
But the cycle changed from the first week of April 2013, when the prices of a kilo of tomato rose more steeply than before. And from the first week of August 2013, tomato prices have settled at a new plateau significantly higher than at any time in the last three years.
Why has this happened? The growth of the processed foods industry is the main cause – this industry sector has for the last three years grown (in value) at around 15% per year, which is greater than the GDP ‘growth’ and greater than the growth in value recorded for agriculture in general. For tomatoes, this means that every quarter, more tomatoes exit the stream of tomatoes that would otherwise go to home kitchens and instead enter factories, there to be turned into sauce, ketchup, purée and powder (which you find as flavouring even in those awful noodle ‘tastemaker’ sachets and cup noodle containers). These thousands of tons will become available as packaged and processed goods (the better to accompany the acres of super-fattening industrial pizza being baked every day) and this means less, per capita or per household, is available as primary produce that can be used in kitchens at home.