Energy prices may have improved since last year, but the threat of ToBRFV and the search for resistant varieties that deliver on organoleptic qualities remain a challenge

Last winter many greenhouse tomato growers in Europe elected not to plant due to the exorbitant energy costs at the time. While those costs have come down somewhat, the list of challenges appears no less daunting, especially the threat of the ToBRFV virus.

“Energy prices are still an issue for growers in Belgium even if they’re not quite at the level of two years ago,” says Jan Engelen, marketing manager at Belgian cooperative Hoogstraten. “The costs are at least more manageable. For those supplying retailers, the impact of inflation on consumer purchasing is a concern. The basket is changing for consumers, and people are spending less on fresh produce. So that’s a worry.”

However, the issue of resistance currently dominates discussions in the tomato category. “I think the biggest challenge facing the tomato sector at the moment is finding resistant varieties that build on the developments in taste, shape, colour and so on that we’ve seen,” says Engelen. “If breeders only look for resistance, tomatoes will start to lose things like taste, colour, shape, shelf-life, which is not good. So that’s going to be a challenge. But a lot of people are scared to go for a non-resistant variety now.”

The other priority is sustainability, with pressure coming from European retailers. “There’s a lot of demand from retailers concerning carbon footprint and other sustainability issues,” says Engelen. “Perhaps it dropped down the list of issues during Covid, but now it’s gaining interest again. There are some retailers who have committed to working on their sustainability figures, and a lot of that pressure passes on to suppliers like us, so we need to be ready to fulfil their needs. So that’s a challenge.”

Engelen says Hoogstraten’s growers are making great efforts on sustainability issues. His concern is when specific comparisons are made without the entire sustainability picture being assessed. “Comparing only carbon footprints can be misleading,” he says. “Perhaps on carbon footprint we are not the best in class, but on water, on people, on providing decent housing for workers – on all those things, we are. When you’re talking about Moroccan, Spanish, Dutch or Belgian produce, they each have their own challenges. But if you only focus on one of the topics, then it’s not a fair comparison.

“If you have to heat your production, then carbon footprint is not going to be as good as unheated production. On the other hand, a lot of the heating is done by cogeneration, and we produce electricity, which will still be needed by the community. Our growers are doing their best to work in a sustainable way to produce the healthiest product possible. But I have a feeling that it’s never enough.”

But Coöperatie Hoogstraten and its growers are no strangers to a challenge. “As a united front we will find solutions,” assures Engelen. “And together we will grow toward a healthy and sustainable future.”